Americans throw out about $165 billion in food each year. Yet some 16.7 million U.S. children live in so-called "food insecurity"--neither they nor their families are sure where their next meal is coming from.
To Eric Lehnhardt and the team at Flash Food Recovery, that sounds like a huge social problem--but also, potentially, a compelling business opportunity. What if restaurants, sports venues, hotels, and convention centers could be convinced to donate their perfectly-good leftovers--and if the people who needed better access to food could be alerted via text message while the food was still at its freshest, tastiest, and most nutritious?
Lehnhardt started working on this problem during an applied engineering class at Arizona State University, in which students were asked to work on a problem that was particularly relevant to Phoenix. That city has the fourth-highest rate of childhood food insecurity in the country. Its community center, which often provides free meals, is only about three miles away from the sports venues, hotels and convention centers that could potentially donate food. And according to a 2010 report from the Centers for Disease control, about 70% of people living in poverty have access to a phone with SMS capabilities.
"They’re really on to something and it's definitely gained momentum," says Zachary Schaeffer, a successful restaurateur who has been mentoring the company through the school’s incubator. "They’ve had a lot of publicity, which helps reinforce the idea that this is a real problem, not only for restaurant operators but as a social issue."
The team at Flash Food has since grown to seven, of whom three have graduated. Lehnhardt himself expects to graduate in May, and three other team members still have a year to go. Together, they've raised about $30,000 through business plan competitions and the school’s incubator. A win at Microsoft’s Innovation Cup provided $8,000 and phones to use for the company’s pilot run, which is taking place over the next few weeks. Within a year, Lehnhardt wants Flash Food to be live in two cities. "I think this could grow very quickly," he says.
The company hopes to take advantage of a number of revenue streams, from advertising on its website to certification fees for participating businesses. But Schaeffer says the company could also try to get government funding, and might have the option of creating a not-for-profit arm. Either way, he says, "The team is very capable, very knowledgeable, and very engaged with both sides now. This is the team to do it."