Philadelphia food rescue organization develops scalable model for food donation – Food Tank
Based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Sharing Excess works to recover and redirect excess food away from landfills. Now with a permanent warehouse, a food distribution van and their first wholesale partnership, the organization aims to expand its model to cities nationwide.
Sharing Excess began in 2018, when a group of Drexel University students banded together to address food insecurity on campus and in the surrounding West Philadelphia community. “We have always believed that young people are catalysts for meaningful change,” Evan Ehlers, founder of Sharing Excess, told Food Tank. Over the past two years, Sharing Excess has become one of the largest food rescue operations in Philadelphia.
During the pandemic, Ehlers tells Food Tank, “there wasn’t a single department dedicated to making sure 100% of food waste was captured.” While some businesses have shifted to curbside pickup or delivery, others have had to temporarily close, leaving a massive surplus of perishables. According to Feeding America, food insecurity increased by 50 percent during the pandemic and one in five Americans began turning to food banks, food pantries and other programs for food assistance.
Ehlers and his team responded by distributing leftover food from restaurants and retailers to the community. A Philadelphia plaintiff article highlighted the work of Sharing Excess and as a result, in just one day, 100 new volunteers signed up to work with the organization. The team was inundated with calls from local business owners requesting their services. The follow-up to the article, Ehlers explains, was a “call to action” and allowed Sharing Excess to scale up its operations.
Throughout the pandemic, Sharing Excess has distributed 3.6 million kilograms of food, the equivalent of US$15.5 million, and ensured it does not end up in landfills, where it would release harmful greenhouse gases. They purchased their first warehouse and received a van for food donations from Philabundance, a food bank and Feeding America partner. They have also collaborated with over 200 food banks, community organizations and self-help efforts. Overall, Sharing Excess is growing over 400%.
Sharing Excess continued to expand its business through a partnership with the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, one of the largest wholesalers in the United States. Since beginning its bulk rescue operation in mid-2021, the organization has rescued and redistributed more than 2.2 million kilograms of food.
Through their ongoing partnership, Sharing Excess is able to salvage edible food and bring it directly to communities. Their volunteers organize pop-up events where community members can choose what to take home. They also host free educational potlucks to educate community members about food waste in their city and ways to get involved.
“We’re trying to de-stigmatize the act of distribution and provide more opportunities for cultural connection,” Ehlers told Food Tank. At food distribution sites, Sharing Excess volunteers thank community members for being part of the solution to food waste.
Ehlers explains that Sharing Excess is also developing technology to “make it easier for the general public to get involved in food rescue.”
They recently launched the Food rescue app, an open-source hub where community members can coordinate their own pickups and deliveries. The app tracks daily impact and provides volunteers with step-by-step instructions. “We wanted to improve the existing infrastructure of food banks, food businesses and self-help organizations and take on the burden of the most tedious logistics,” Ehlers told Food Tank.
Ryan McHenry, Chief Technology Officer at Sharing Excess, designed the app with support from 100 Drexel University interns. “The architecture we chose…provides an extremely accessible, yet powerful and scalable framework for our application to grow and our engineering students to grow with it,” McHenry writing.
Ehlers says the app is open source “so technology innovators can take it and use it, to modify the app to make it work best.” Currently, Sharing Excess is in partnership with ReFED and DoorDash: DASH Projectwhose teams participate in the development and improvement of the application.
Ehlers tells Food Tank that they hope to work with bigger tech companies that can bring the app to the mainstream and establish more wholesale lifesaving partnerships in cities like New York, Boston, Dallas, Salt Lake City and Denver. . They also hope to set up what they call food relief centers. These community-facing institutions will serve as spaces where volunteers can interact with the community.
Before trying to expand, Ehlers emphasizes the importance of developing a fully sustainable and scalable model in Philadelphia. “Our national expansion depends first on going deep in one area. We want to develop a truly sustainable model before we diversify.
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Photo courtesy of Sharing Excess