Food Rescue and Social Responsibility: A Conversation with FoodBridge

From foodtank.com, by Nina Sparling
Food Rescue and Social Responsibility: A Conversation with FoodBridge

FoodBridge is a collaborative effort between local businesses and nonprofit leaders to address food waste and hunger in local communities. Working with commercial food brokers and food distributors, FoodBridge tries to redirect waste from the food service industry into the hands of those in need. Through its online platform, FoodBridge sends immediate notifications about surplus food donations—food that would otherwise be waste—to registered organizations capable of putting it to good use.  

Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with FoodBridge leader Kosmas Koukoulis about food rescue and social responsibility.

Food Tank (FT): Coming from work in restaurants, what motivated you to get involved with FoodBridge?

Kosmas Koukoulis (KK): My restaurant background has been useful in growing and managing FoodBridge, but its creation stemmed from our efforts to help one struggling family in Baltimore, Maryland. U Empower of Maryland is a nonprofit organization that identifies areas of genuine need in the community and bridges available resources to address those needs. In working with an impoverished family, we discovered that our efforts to bring education to its members were constantly hindered by their necessity to meet basic needs of food and shelter. No matter how well they were doing in school or how much fulfillment they were clearly getting from it, when it was time to put food on the table, nothing else mattered. During a food drive for this family, we came up with the idea of creating a more permanent solution, and thus FoodBridge was born. Because of the model it provides and the ideas it promotes, FoodBridge has grown to become the flagship program of U Empower of Maryland.

FT: What role do you see for the food service industry in addressing both food waste and hunger?

KK: As FoodBridge demonstrates, addressing food waste and hunger are not entirely separate initiatives. I believe that long-term, sustainable solutions to both challenges must be accomplished in cooperation with the food service industry. Commercial food waste occurs on such a large scale and with such regular frequency that real change is achievable. The food service industry already has built-in channels of communication, and multi-location companies, that make growth not only attainable but just plain logical. This is an ever-growing industry that exists across geographical and socioeconomic boundaries. Furthermore, these industry workers are equipped with the food safety knowledge and the food service equipment to take the responsible steps to make such initiatives a reality.

FT: What are the biggest challenges you see in reducing food waste in the United States? How about towards ending hunger?

KK: The biggest challenge right now is that there is no easy, accessible system in place to empower the companies and individuals with a desire to contribute to effectively do so. With so much skepticism in the world, especially when it comes to the nonprofit sector, not only must this system be accessible but it must also be transparent. I believe that the majority of people (which includes business owners and managers) want to help reduce waste, want to feed the hungry, and want to contribute to their community in other ways, but simply lack the time or ability to find out what, where, and when to act. It is my experience that those who give are equally grateful as those who receive. And that type of feeling is contagious. We need to find ways to empower others to share in that feeling and they will become agents of this mission themselves. FoodBridge is one such system that directly connects those who have with those who need or can use. FoodBridge focuses on redistributing food waste from the food service industry to local nonprofits in need. 

FT: How can we encourage more conversations about the relationship between food waste and hunger in local communities?

 KK: FoodBridge focuses on rescuing food waste from commercial food brokers and food distributors. We have identified this sector of the food service industry as the one most often overlooked, and as the one with the most to give. Although restaurants as a whole are not effective sources of rescuable food waste, they can play a crucial role in this movement by encouraging the discussion. FoodBridge fund and awareness drives are powered almost solely by partner restaurants. Restaurants can be enlisted to post and to distribute literature about food waste and hunger in our country and in their communities. In addition to special events, restaurants can, and many have, advertise various types of perpetual "Round-Up" programs to raise both funds and awareness for local food rescue initiatives. Eventually, restaurant membership in food rescue programs will become a priceless branding tool and a symbol of social responsibility. 

FT: Can you talk about some of the challenges you’ve faced in your work with FoodBridge?

KK: Despite its achievements, FoodBridge growth has not come easily. One recurring challenge is food supply through donor growth. The generous donations we have right now are not meeting the demands. Often when we post available food, it is claimed by our charities within minutes. Despite the plethora of food waste that goes on in the commercial food industry, there are many individuals and companies still reluctant to join FoodBridge because of concerns over food safety liability. Even after we share with them the multiple layers of liability protection built into our system, some companies will still not consider partnership because of this fear. One of our primary goals with FoodBridge has always been to make this system as business-friendly and as business-safe as possible. We recognize the value provided by our donors and want to make this partnership an attractive venture for them, as well. Regardless, this one objection is too often insurmountable. Another challenge that we struggle with is funding. FoodBridge is intentionally a free platform for all users. This provides an inherent layer of transparency and ensures there are no obstacles in obtaining food for our nonprofit members. System upgrades do, however, require funding, and at times the pace of our growth is limited to the pace of our funding. Our restaurant partners and fundraisers keep the system moving forward but, for now, this is still an area for improvement.

FT: Food Bridge grew out of a partnership between a private company and a nonprofit. What role do you see for such collaborations in building a more just and sustainable food system? What potential do you see for this model to be applied elsewhere?

KK: Since its inception, FoodBridge has been a collaborative effort between local business and nonprofit leaders. Such collaborations are essential to our ability to solve a wide range of social challenges. A business approach to problem solving can add just the right perspective to any round table of thinkers. For food rescue, in particular, it just makes sense to have the food donors at the same table as the program administrators and the food recipients. In the case of food waste, private sector contributors benefit directly from the relationship and are self-motivated to be a part of a long-term, sustainable food rescue system. Similar relationships can be nurtured between manufacturers in other industries and nonprofits with alternate focuses. In other cases, companies can be motivated by indirect benefits such as positive social branding and association. Long-term solutions can only happen when everyone contributes and has their voice heard.