What are we doing with the leftovers?

With 40 percent of food in the US going to waste, Phoenix-local organization Flash Food is combating hunger through a mobile app.  Photo courtesy of Jessica Slater

With 40 percent of food in the US going to waste, Phoenix-local organization Flash Food is combating hunger through a mobile app.
Photo courtesy of Jessica Slater

Maybe it’s happened to you before.

You’re sitting in the food court of a mall, enjoying your tomato and basil panini, thinking about nothing in particular, when all of a sudden, your surroundings are transformed. The people who seemed to be following the same motions as you are now dancing uniformly. It’s insane how quickly it happened, but, before you have a chance to piece together what exactly is going on, it’s over. And everyone who was a part of it goes back to what they had been doing before. You’re left in a state of confusion and jovial disbelief. Feeling how crazy it is that something could change so instantaneously, even for something as silly as a dance routine.

This of course, is a flash mob, a sensation that gave way to many YouTube videos in the late 2000s. This phenomenon, although quirky, is what inspired FlashFood.

 
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“FlashFood is a food recovery network powered by a web-based application that works to connect leftover food from restaurants with individuals in the community who don’t have enough to eat,” says Katelyn Kerberle, a senior materials science and engineering student.

Kerberle is one of the co-founders of FlashFood. Since its inception, she’s taken on the role of community relations director and volunteer coordinator for the group. Also behind FlashFood is Ramya Baratam, Eric Lehnhardt, Marry Hanna Smith, Jake Irvin, Loni Lehnhardt and Steven Hernandez.

The team behind FlashFood got its start in the program, EPICS (Engineering Projects In Community Service).

“We were a team put together and given a pretty broad challenge,” Kerberle says. “’Go make something that uses technology to help people.’”

The team took on this challenge by first talking to food banks and community centers. They learned about a huge gap in society — food deserts.

Food deserts are areas in urban communities that don’t have access to grocery stores where affordable and healthy food is available.

The team thought about how often there is excess food left over by restaurants each night. They wondered if they could create a way to connect food that’s left over by restaurants with these areas that don’t have enough to eat.

“And from that, flash mobs became an inspiration; the idea that you can instantly contact a lot of people and bring them together for a singular purpose,” Kerberle says. “So we thought: ‘What if we could do that, but with food?’”

The team decided that the best way to do something so instantaneously would be through an app-based or web-based service. The only problem was that they didn’t have anyone in the initial group who knew exactly how to develop the program.

That’s where Steven Hernandez, a 2012 ASU graduate in computer science, came into the picture.

It wasn’t the easiest project to take on because there were many factors to consider. Their model is still evolving.

Right now, “when a businesses who works with us has this leftover food, they will contact us through our application,” Hernandez says.

From there, the team contacts the volunteers who have said they’re available at this particular time to pick up the food. That food then gets dropped off at a community center.

“We have it built where basically a restaurant or donor location is paired with a specific community center or drop-off location,” he says. “Any food that is coming from restaurant A will be going to the community center B.”

Although the technology is not fully developed, the group still is able to do runs from restaurants to community centers twice a week.

“The best part was when we were able to make our first delivery last March,” Kerberle says. “That was a really exciting day; it was the first day that all of this work had actually come to fruition.”

The runs are generally made every Wednesday and Friday. The team is able to process about 50 or 60 meals a week, Kerberle says. It’s a good feeling for the team to know that there are families who sit down to dinner because of the work they’ve done.

Grants have helped further the team’s mission.

FlashFood received a $2,000 grant from the ASU Innovation Challenge, Kerberle says. The team also won the Microsoft Imagine Cup which had a grant associated with it, the ASU Edson Student Entrepreneurship Initiative grant and a grant from the Ford Foundation.

“The grants go to building up the infrastructure,” Kerberle says. “The money goes toward developing the technology as well as building our volunteer base, our donor base and our community center base.”

The team hopes that one day FlashFood will be self-sustaining, both financially and with the amount of donations generated.

For now, though, the team is happy to be along for the ride and see exactly where FlashFood takes them.

“It’s been a really great learning experience,” Hernandez says. “The bonus of being the only developer is that I have to teach myself how to do some database work and learn a little more about how websites run which I didn’t necessarily get from school.”

It’s a project that has been close with them, but they hope to expand the mission beyond the group.

Currently, the team is looking for more volunteers that can help by picking up food from restaurants and dropping the food off at designated community centers.

“We’d like to get everybody in the community involved with this,” Kerberle says. “Hunger is an issue that affects people young and old.”

FlashFood shows just how much technology can do to help social issues. It leaves one to wonder how else technology could be used to help society.

Thinking like the team behind FlashFood, is it possible, just as flash mobs transform our surroundings so instantaneously, that we could use untapped areas of technology to do the same?

Reach the writer at gretchen.burnton@asu.edu or on Twitter @GretchenBurnton