As the pandemic hit Arizona last year, one Scottsdale-based nonprofit was in the midst of launching a free app that would more easily deliver excess food products to nonprofits helping to feed the hungry.
As demand for food grew among people and families impacted by the pandemic, Waste Not Community Engagement Manager Hillary Bryant said the app became “a lifesaver for many.”
Called mealconnect, the app furthered the nonprofit’s goal of connecting Arizonans with food that otherwise would end up in landfills.
“We had several food businesses reach out because of the shutdowns asking us if we could pick up the food they would no longer be using. We picked up food from spring training facilities, restaurants that were closing and venues that weren’t able to host guests,” Bryant said.
Nine months later, Waste Not’s is picking up food in record numbers from other businesses.
Overall, Waste Not delivered more than three million meals last year, equating to approximately 1,500 tons of food diverted from landfills — an economic value of more than $3.4 million.
For comparison, in 2019, Waste Not diverted 963 tons of food from landfills, a total value of more than $2.2 million.
According to Bryant, the MealConnect app made a “huge impact” on Waste Not.
“Before we started to use the app, we were sending our fleet of trucks to pick up these smaller donations,” she said. “Although all the food we receive is appreciated, sometimes our fleet would have to travel long distances to pick up very small volumes of food. This was inefficient and started to drain resources.
“With MealConnect, our drivers can focus on picking up large donations from businesses such as grocery stores and we are able to engage our community and use volunteers to pick up these smaller donations.”
With MealConnect, donors log in when they have surplus food.
They are then connected with nonprofits in their community and local volunteer drivers who deliver the food.
“The process of donating meals through MealConnect is seamless and very user-friendly,” said Samantha Liotta, a sports dietician for Sun Devil Athletics, which creates balanced, nutritious meals for ASU student athletes.
“It makes the process so easy and we have recommended it to others to use,” Liotta continued. “It feels good knowing our excess nutritious meals are being donated to those who need and appreciate them. All the volunteers have been kind and great to work with as well.”
Waste Not’s partner agencies comprise more than 70 nonprofits, including Boys & Girls Clubs, a partner for more than 10 years.
Cassidy Campana, Boys & Girls Clubs vice president of communications and public affairs, said Waste Not has been “a lifesaver for so many families and our members” and a “game-changer” for their organization.
“This pandemic really shined a light on how precarious food security is for many of the families we serve,” Campana said.
“Many students all around Arizona depend on their schools for their morning and lunch meals and the clubs serve our members snack and a hot dinner. When the pandemic hit, many families were affected financially and then forced to provide additional meals for their children with schools closed,” she continued.
Campana also describes MealConnect as a “game-changer” for the Boys & Girls Clubs.
“Their volunteers bring food to us and we get it right into the hands of the club families,” Campana said. “They don’t have to go to a food bank or wait in a line. Their impact is immediate.”
Since the start of the pandemic, a Waste Not survey reported an increase in need for food among 64 percent of the agencies they serve.
“Our agencies have said that not only did the people they continually worked with need more food, but they saw an increase of those seeking help for the first time,” Bryant said.
Boys & Girls Clubs is just one of the many agencies that experienced an increase in food insecure families.
“And they rely on the clubs to help with meals,” Campana said. “Most of the kids we are seeing now, during the pandemic, are children of frontline workers, including healthcare workers and grocery/food service employees.
“These working families live paycheck-to-paycheck and having their kids in a safe place for schoolwork, where they also get meals is a huge relief, emotionally and financially.”
When they shifted to full-day distance learning centers, most clubs began operating more than 11 hours each day – a 250 percent increase.
In response, the clubs began serving two to three meals a day, as well as snacks.
And while the clubs and schools were able to offer meals, Waste Not stepped in with additional resources for families to take home food supplies and fully prepped meals when available.
“Waste Not’s donations of meals and snacks has helped us fill in food service gaps,” Campana said.
“Sometimes, Waste Not delivered Sprinkles cupcakes and these quickly became the most popular indulgence. It’s something that many of our kids would never enjoy in their typical lives and even more special for them in a time of so many challenges,” she said.
Sprinkles Cupcakes is just one of more than 70 local food businesses that donate to Waste Not, joining catering companies, event venues, resorts, grocery stores, like Trader Joe’s and AJ’s Fine Foods; and restaurants, like Preston’s Steakhouse, Rancho Pinot and The Duce.
“Our families have enjoyed fully prepped meals from The Duce, an incredible donation for a number of weeks for up to 150 families each week,” Campana said.
“Sometimes we’ve received bakery goods from Starbucks and sandwiches from Panera. Most recently, we received a huge donation of cakes, cookies, and donuts from Urban Cookies, just in time for our holiday parties.”
But it’s Sprinkles that has been the most generous – and popular – among the Boys & Girls Clubs.
“We distribute all of these special treats across our 18 open clubs, from Apache Junction to Glendale,” Campana said.
“We are geographically all over the Valley,” she continued. “We get an email and a text alert the night before and we can make quick arrangements for clubs to pick up meals or treats the following morning. We know the time and the name of the volunteer so it’s easy to track the deliveries and get them out fresh.”
MealConnect’s launch was met with its fair share of challenges.
Over the summer, Waste Not experienced a lack of food donations.
So, in response, they used the app technology to help other nonprofits with transport and logistics.
“For example, we assisted the Scottsdale Senior Centers with delivering groceries that they purchased to their members that were homebound and high-risk,” Bryant said.
In October, they also assisted Valley of the Sun United Way by delivering “Pantry Packs,” packs of food for school-aged children to take home.
“They generally have their own volunteers to help deliver these packs to schools, but they had to shut down their volunteer operations amid the pandemic,” Bryant said.
MealConnect continues to struggle obtaining food, especially with venues and hotels either still shuttered or operating at a very basic level.
“Additionally, restaurants have a lower number of guests, decreasing the food that is made. This plus the cancellation of holiday parties and gatherings has made it difficult to obtain the amount of food we need,” Bryant said.
In addition to delivering food free of cost to nonprofits, MealConnect’s benefits include helping food businesses reduce waste costs and generate tax savings. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S.-based nonprofit international environmental advocacy group, more than $218 billion is spent nationally on food every year that is never eaten.
“Our goal is to add to our base of more than 70 generous local food businesses,” Bryant said. “Expanding our base means that we can provide food to more people in more communities across the Valley.”
More specifically, Waste Not’s goal is to add at least 50 new food donors to the program.
The nonprofit is also looking to increase their outreach and exposure to receive more food and financial donations.
“We are also working hard to create innovative partnerships and collaborate with those in our community to come up with more solutions that prevent or reduce food waste,” Bryant added.