Challenging food poverty in the digital age / by Mary Jane Edwards

The launch last week of the Feeding Britain report propelled food poverty and the role of food banks back into the political and public spotlight. The report provided a thorough, non-partisan reframing of the debate, and sensibly highlighted many underlying causes and areas for further investigation.

However, other than noting that access to mobile phones and the Internet are important to families in poverty, the potential role of technology in alleviating food poverty was otherwise overlooked.

New approaches

Over the past couple of years, though, a number of exciting new digital platforms have begun to emerge that help to move food from those who have it to those who don’t. They may point to new ways of significantly helping this cause.

For example, with the Feeding Britain report putting the big supermarkets in the line of fire for only redistributing 2% of their edible surplus food, it is useful to consider how FoodCloud, a small start-up based in Ireland, is tackling that problem.

Local retailers sign up to the platform, and at the end of the day enter into the system the food that they’d like to distribute. The platform then automatically texts local charities what is available, and they do the rest. Simple. And perhaps the most encouraging aspect is that – with Tesco signed up as a partner – the platform has the chance of ‘scaling up’, the holy grail of every tech start-up.

But that’s just one approach. Many more are emerging across the globe.

In the USA, Food Cowboy provides a similar service to FoodCloud, routing surplus produce to food banks and soup kitchens, thus countering (as they say on their site) “the terrible irony of food companies paying to have nutritious fruits and vegetables hauled away to landfills even while charities just a few miles away pay good money to purchase the very same foods.”

PareUp (New York City) adds a commercial incentive for retailers, by allowing them to advertise their nearly-out-of-date produce at discounted rates. No more sharp elbows needed around the discount bays after 7pm, and far better – for both consumer and retailer – than just throwing the goods away.

ZeroPercent (USA) provides a similar service for restaurants, allowing them to list their leftover food and send text alerts to food pantries about what's available.

These innovations aren’t just for retailers, though; some also bring the general public into play. LeftoverSwap (again in the USA) goes a step further in utilising the capabilities of mobile phones, in that it allows you to take a photo of your food and see if anyone in the area would like to have it.

Over here in the UK, Casserole Club pushes the agenda from afterthought (i.e. ‘what do I do with these leftovers?’) to proactive and intended sharing. It pairs up those who could do with a good, hot meal with those who are happy to cook one. As a contributor, all you have to do is make an extra portion of a dish you may well have been cooking anyway, and deliver it at the agreed time to someone in your neighbourhood.

The power of platform thinking

Most of these interesting innovations harness what is known as ‘platform thinking’ – using the Internet (in these cases sometimes aided by app functionality) to make valuable connections that would be more difficult to make in the offline world (would you knock on your neighbour’s door to offer them a third of a pizza?). If there really is enough food in the world to feed everyone, new platforms do their best to connect available resources (in this case, food) to those who need or want them.

What may be most promising about these approaches, however, might be how they can combine forces with existing food bank and food distribution networks, or how each side – tech and non-tech – might learn from each other. That’s at the heart of a programme we have just begun with Dr Giles Hindle and Professor Richard Vidgen at Hull University Business School, funded by Surrey University’sNew Economic Models in the Digital Economy programme.

We will work with a number of food banks to examine their operational models. At the same time, we will find and analyse new digital approaches and investigate how technology can provide benefits over and above traditional, on-the-ground models. The project will investigate business-to-business (B2B) cooperation in the food bank supply chain (e.g. FoodCloud) and peer-to-peer (P2P) models, such as LeftoverSwap. There are also opportunities for connecting with Government agencies to build a better-connected approach to food allocation and consumption.

Collaborative potential

However, experience in other sectors has shown that those on the sharp end of front-line delivery can struggle to find time to consider the potential for new digital approaches. Conversely, tech start-ups may benefit from deeper exposure to traditional approaches, to strengthen their understanding of where the greatest help is needed. By bringing both sides together in workshops we hope to identify new ways of operating and build understanding of how digital approaches can re-imagine the food bank supply chain.

While it seems as if food banks may well still continue to increase in number as austerity continues to bite in the next few years, it is encouraging that some more tech-based cavalry has the potential to bolster traditional methods.

Of course, like many digitally-driven innovations, what really powers these platforms isn’t really the technology, it’s human kindness – of shop owners wanting to help, of neighbours wanting to do their bit; the tech just connects them with those who need their help.

Please get in touch if you want to collaborate with us to explore this area further.

Andy Hamflett