staff, September 14, 2014

Food waste is a growing issue across the country. About 31 percent of all food produced in the United States is never eaten, according to the USDA. Nevertheless, one in six Americans still has difficulty finding enough to eat.

A team of entrepreneurs at a not-just-for-profit company called Zero Percent, led by CEO and co-founder Raj Karmani, wants to correct that disparity. To do that, they?ve developed a mobile app to rescue bagels, soups, lunchmeats and other excess retail food from the bottom of a dumpster.

Zero Percent 2

The app, created by Karmani and Zero Percent co-founder Caleb Phillips, allows restaurants to move their surplus, still-edible food to nearby soup kitchens, shelters, and other in-need nonprofit organizations. Participating restaurants can use the simple interface on the app to post an announcement of any excess food they have that day. The app then automatically alerts volunteers at certain charitable organizations that donations are available to pick up.

?It?s a matchmaking between donors and the restaurants based on the right timing, quantity and product,? Karmani said. ?There are a lot of variables involved.?

Zero PercentKarmani first had the idea for the app while working toward his doctorate degree in computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He learned that the owner of an Einstein Bros. bagel shop near his apartment was frustrated in setting up a regular pick-up schedule with a nonprofit organization for food donations at the end of each day.

?I thought this was a classic problem of meeting supply and demand, and it wasn?t just a problem here, but a huge problem everywhere,? Karmani said. ?I felt like there was something that needed to be done. I also knew technologies and mobile could go a long way in helping to find a solution.?

In other words, if there?s an app for everything else these days, why not for this too?

The coding behind the Zero Percent app automates the matchmaking between the restaurants and a pool of nonprofit and volunteers who have signed on in an area to be part of a rotation to accept donations.

After a restaurant posts an announcement that food is available using the app, an automatic text message is sent to one of the local agencies. Those organizations can respond with a ?YES? or ?NO? as to whether it can claim the donation that day. If it can?t, the system automatically resends the information to the next agency. The app was created to ensure every agency gets an equal turn in claiming food donations.

?It takes the guesswork out of this for restaurants that are very busy but want to do the right thing,? Karmani said.

Still in its beginnings, Zero Percent has already facilitated 340,000 pounds of food donations so far this year. Its goal is to hit the 1 million mark before the end of the year.

The team has been working to expand outside Champaign-Urbana, Ill., where they?ve had three Einstein Bagels, seven University of Illinois dining halls, and others offer up frequent donations to organizations like the local Salvation Army and Daily Bread Soup Kitchen. Last year, the Zero Percent team joined a startup accelerator program called Impact Engine as they focused on expanding networks in the Chicago area. That network has already bloomed to more than 50 Chicago businesses and volunteer nonprofits that are ready to give and accept donations.

Within the next year, the Zero Percent team plans to expand into 10 more cities across the country. Eventually, Karmani hopes that the Zero Percent app will help facilitate these donations everywhere, and that no table scraps will ever go to waste again.

By Melissa Dittmann Tracey

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