Forty percent of food in the United States is thrown away every year, while an estimated 50 million Americans suffer from food insecurity. These figures are almost too high, their relationship too confounding, to fully grasp. Luckily Jeff Schacher, cofounder of the Connecticut-based food-rescue organization Community Plates, is on a mission to reconcile this problem.
Schacher became acutely aware of hunger when he was growing up near Flint, Michigan, in the wake of the devastating 1980s General Motors layoffs. “We always had enough food to eat, but there were tons of poverty-stricken, struggling families,” he recalls. “I’d see kids at school in the morning, waiting in line for free breakfast. It planted the seed of wanting to help people having hard times.”
Schacher eventually left Flint for New York City, where he studied theater and, like so many aspiring actors, worked various restaurant gigs to pay the bills. One day, while waiting tables at a Midtown eatery, he ran into a friend who’d just landed a job at a digital media company. “This was during the dot-com bubble, when they were giving away jobs to anyone who could write HTML,” he says. Burned out on theater, and wanting to join the creative tech scene his friend described, Schacher swiftly devoured books on website construction, taught himself to code, and got an entry-level position at an Internet research company in early 2000.
After working his way up the ranks at that company, Schacher branched out on his own in 2005 to develop PeachWorks, a cloud-based platform designed to help restaurants manage inventory, scheduling, and other day-to-day operations. Part of the software’s purpose is to keep restaurants from buying too much food, but Schacher’s own industry experience taught him that eliminating excess ordering altogether is an unattainable goal. “Businesses are getting better at predicting what they’ll use or sell, but they’re always going to order more than they need just to ensure they have enough,” he says. And if a restaurant has, say, a shipment of tomatoes coming in tomorrow, the current crop gets tossed to clear space for the fresh supply. “It’s this constant flow of getting rid of the old and bringing in the new. There’s always going to be excess,” Schacher says.
As his company grew, the memories of those Flint families stayed with Schacher, and he began searching for ways to help. “Being a start-up, we couldn’t donate a bunch of money, so I thought, what if we donate our talent—our knack for simplifying complex processes? My head instantly went to all the waste at the restaurants I’d worked in.” After making some calls, he realized two things: Local markets and restaurants had plenty of food left over at the end of each day but found it easier to trash it than donate it. And in those same communities, food banks and soup kitchens were having to turn away hungry families. “It seemed silly that we couldn’t get the food from point A to point B—such a solvable problem, and a real tragedy for people to be suffering needlessly.”
Schacher enlisted the help of his friend Kevin Mullins—who eventually became Community Plates’ cofounder and executive director—and in 2011 the two devised an innovative, tech-fueled system for rescuing fresh food and directly transferring it, the very same day, to folks in need. “Technology is critical to what we do,” Schacher says. “Our app coordinates everything.” Once donors sign up, Community Plates arranges to pick up from them on a prearranged schedule; similarly, receiving agencies agree to accept donations on a schedule. Community Plates matches the type and quantity of food, so volunteers can simply launch an app that shows “open runs”—details on the amount of eligible food, plus location and contact information for a donor, then the location and contact info of the recipient. The volunteer hits a button to sign up to use his or her own vehicle to retrieve the unwanted items from point A (markets, restaurants, farms, university dining halls) and deliver them to point B (shelters, food pantries, any group that serves an at-risk population). It’s usually around a 20-minute commitment. There are no warehouses or middlemen—the food’s life span is too short for that.
Remember those Dumpster-bound tomatoes? “They might have a good 24 to 48 hours left in them, so we grab them in the morning and immediately transport them to a local shelter that’s going to cook them up that night,” Schacher says. “We’re providing fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables…so grandmothers can get apples for their grandkids’ after-school snacks, and diabetics have options beyond unhealthy nonperishables, like pasta, rice, and canned goods.”
What began as an experiment involving two friends, one truck, and a single restaurant in Connecticut has evolved into a national movement, with 14 million meals rescued to date. A growing number of local sites are sprouting up in cities like Albuquerque, New Orleans, and Cincinnati, and a Washington, D.C., site is launching later this month. “People see us on social media and reach out, saying, ‘Hey, we’d like to partner with you,’” Schacher says. “Then we use our software and systems to make it happen.” An updated version of the Community Plates app, coming next year, will further simplify the training and support processes, allowing for even faster growth and greater expansion.
As for his ultimate goal, Schacher says, “We want to end food insecurity in the United States. And we have all the resources to do it.”