Tech triage: How an app can curb food waste and aid disaster relief

Copia’s platform helps businesses donate excess food and is expanding into distributing emergency supplies.

By Garage Staff — November 1, 2018

Last June, as she looked out her office window in San Francisco and observed waves of smoke and ash rolling across the bay, Copia’s founder and CEO Komal Ahmad immediately thought of ways to help. “We were safe from the fires, yet also so close to the disaster unfolding,” she says. “We sprang into action.”

Ahmad and her team at Copia — the company she founded that takes unused food from university cafeterias, chain restaurants and corporations and distributes it to nonprofits — were some of the first people on the scene during the devastating California wildfires of 2017. They weren’t there to battle the blaze — which eventually consumed some 1.2 million acres and destroyed more than 10,800 buildings — but rather, to feed the displaced and the emergency responders working around the clock. “Our head of sales mobilized our existing food donors and called dozens more restaurants and other food providers to get them onto our platform,” she says.

For a team who was used to working with food banks, not fast-changing emergency situations, delving into disaster relief was a big, new challenge. But Ahmad knew her algorithm was ready, as she had already been able to solve so many other problems.

Every year, one third of all usable food goes to waste across the globe — that’s 1.6 billion tons of food that could otherwise have been eaten.

A young woman hungry for change

Ahmad was inspired to create Copia when she was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. When she was approached by a homeless man asking for food, she invited him to lunch, where she learned he had just returned from his second tour in Iraq. His veteran’s benefits had yet to begin and he hadn’t eaten in three days. She dreamt of a way for organizations with excess food to easily donate it to people in need.

Copia started as an organization called Feeding Forward in 2011 on UC Berkeley’s campus. With Feeding Forward, Ahmad was able to connect the college dining hall with nonprofits and donate the school’s excess food.

McCain Merren

Copia CEO and founder Komal Ahmad is all smiles ahead of food recovery at the 2017 Oscars after-parties.

Every year, one third of all usable food goes to waste across the globe — that’s 1.6 billion tons of food that could otherwise have been consumed. That number is projected to balloon to 2.1 billion tons of wasted food by 2030, according to a recent report from Boston Consulting Group. In the midst of this crisis of misuse, an estimated one in eight Americans lacks consistent access to adequate food.  

To Ahmad it was clear that “hunger is not a scarcity problem, it’s a logistics problem.” By 2016 she had morphed Feeding Forward into Copia, a business and online platform. It’s not just about moving the food — Copia also crunches data for businesses and organizations that helps reduce waste for one of the most perishable resources we have. By tracking the business’ surplus, companies make better buying decisions to reduce waste in the future.

Overall, Copia helps businesses reduce waste with its food tracking analytics, and then the food they do have to donate is matched with the nonprofits who need it. Copia even guides the organizations through getting tax write-offs for their donations.

“We’ve found that food waste exists among businesses because it’s easier for businesses to throw out excess food than to coordinate donation and food waste is virtually inevitable at a commercial scale,” Ahmad says. “Copia’s technology is solving the logistics of food redistribution and tackling food waste at scale.”

Families visit Felton Institute's Young Family Resource Center in San Francisco to pick up food delivered by Copia.

Billy Purta

Families visit Felton Institute's Young Family Resource Center in San Francisco to pick up food delivered by Copia.

Copia makes food donation easy as pie

Ahmad discovered that donating food can be a surprisingly complicated process; it’s not as simple as showing up with a truck full of groceries. “Contrary to popular belief, not all donations are welcome — sometimes a nonprofit doesn’t have enough fridge space or proper staff available,” Ahmad explains.

With the Copia Connect app, nonprofits can identify donations they’re open to receiving, post that they’re unable to accept donations or request same-day donations. “Our algorithm then matches each food donation with the best-fitting nonprofit,” Ahmad says. Those recipients include homeless shelters, churches and groups that provide low-income housing. On the other side, businesses who use Copia to donate surplus food have access to Copia’s online dashboard that can track food as its bought and donated to avoid over-purchasing in the future.

Using Copia's app to schedule a food donation.

Billy Purta

Using Copia's app to schedule a food donation.

The work Copia does is special because Ahmad and her team offer help in every aspect of food waste reduction. “Copia’s solution is unique because it allows us to forecast our food prep and ordering to prevent waste while also giving us a convenient solution to donate when inevitable excess occurs,” says Bob Williamson, district manager for foodservice support company Compass Group. “It’s the only platform on the market approaching the problem holistically.”

Copia is currently available in eight states and redistributes around 150,000 pounds of food each month. Most of that food comes from hospital cafeterias, national restaurant chains and employee cafeterias. HP’s headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., has been partnering with Copia to donate the excess food from the company’s cafeteria since 2017.

“After digging into the program with my cafeteria manager, it seemed like the right fit for us,” Christopher Beauchesne, site delivery manager for the Palo Alto campus, says. “We're always giving back to the community; it's one of our core principles. It just seemed to be a good fit for what we do and who we are as company.”

HP is dedicated to reducing waste, and earlier this year, the Palo Alto campus was the first tech company in California to be awarded TRUE Zero Waste Certification by Green Business Certification. To get this certification, a company must divert more than 90 percent  of its solid, non-hazardous waste away from incineration and landfills. HP’s headquarters proudly diverts 95 percent of its waste from landfills through organizations like Copia and the company’s recycling programs.

Andrew Pau

A Copia driver delivers a food donation to Recovery Cafe, a nonprofit in San Jose, Calif.

Delivering a brighter future

Right now, Copia is focused on perfecting its redistribution services, and Ahmad hopes to expand to more states and eventually, go global. “Our vision is to be in every city in America,” she says. But that’s not all she has up her sleeve.

Ahmad’s experience with the California wildfires, where Copia provided meals for tens of thousands of first responders and firefighters, showed her Copia’s potential. “The needs were changing by the hour, and we realized how valuable our platform could be — not just for redistributing food, but eventually to redistribute other valuable resources like medical supplies or blankets,” Ahmad says. It also showed her how Copia could work on a global scale distributing anything people need. “Now that we’ve built the technology of the matching algorithm and developed the logistics infrastructure, we want to use the same algorithms to redistribute medicine or clothing to become the most effective and efficient redistributor of surplus resources on the planet.”


Read about six nonprofits helping global businesses go green.