Making Connections with MealConnect

According to the USDA, 42.2 million people in the United States struggled with food insecurity in 2015. As we’ve discussed before, an estimated 40 percent of food in America is wasted, a fact that seems incongruous with the amount of food insecurity also experienced here. One app is working to bring both of those numbers down, connecting recoverable food waste with people who need it.

Low on Liability

The main reason most restaurants and grocery stores give for not donating excess food is simple: fear of liability. In 2015, USA Today spoke with several restaurateurs who thought they couldn’t donate food, but that has not been the case since 1996. That’s when, in an effort to combat food insecurity, President Bill Clinton signed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act into law. The bill limits donor liability to only instances of gross negligence, allowing most individuals, organizations, and businesses to donate food to nonprofits without worry about being held liable for the food once it’s out of their control. However, the lack of knowledge about the law means excess food has continued on its way to compost heaps and landfills, instead of filling hungry bellies.

“The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act does a great job protecting companies from liability when donating wholesome food to a nonprofit organization,” says Justin Block, director of retail information systems with MealConnect. “The Feeding America network works with hundreds of thousands of donors big and small who understand they don’t need to worry when doing good in their community. MealConnect can help raise awareness about this and hopefully that will encourage even more food businesses to begin donating their unsold consumable product.”

Bridging the Gap

Feeding America, a non-profit organization directly descended from the nation’s first food bank, is now working to make it easier for restaurants and grocery stores to get food to people who need it most. The organization has created MealConnect™, an app that makes it simple for businesses to donate surplus food by connecting them to local hunger relief organizations and allowing them to arrange easy pickups.

“We designed MealConnect to make it as easy as possible for a food business to donate their extra, wholesome meals to people facing hunger – and to save money doing it,” explains Block. “We pride ourselves on listening to our users. They are the ones who can teach us how to improve it, so just like your favorite apps, we’ll keep refining our technology to ensure it removes inconveniences associated with donating food.”

MealConnect is made to work on an as-needed basis, which is a big benefit in the restaurant world where it can be difficult to anticipate when excess food will be available. After all, if diners were 100 percent predictable, that wouldn’t be an issue to begin with. When an operator finds he or she has a surplus, a post on the web-based app alerts all participating food banks and meal programs in the area. These organizations then schedule pickup times, the business packages up the food, and the food is transported to those who need it.

Because the pickups are only scheduled after food is posted, the app even works for businesses that do not have excess food regularly. The app is free to use and training is provided to ensure employees know how to use it. The app also allows users to export data, which can help them monitor food waste so ordering can be adjusted if needed and keep track of donation amounts for taxes.

“MealConnect resources for independent food businesses include donation guidelines, a tax benefit calculator and more, not to mention the ability to conveniently partner with your local Feeding America food bank,” says Block.

At the time of writing, MealConnect has facilitated 737,000 pickups, recovered 333 million pounds of food, and provided 278 million meals, making great strides toward Feeding America’s goal of ending food insecurity by 2025.

“Feeding America’s MealConnect app was just launched in June and we’ve already seen good adoption rates in our network of 200 food banks,” says Block. “Currently it’s available for donors to begin using in four metropolitan areas (Austin, Texas; San Jose, Calif.; Fort Worth, Texas; and Lexington, Ky.). The best way for restaurants to signal their desire to use the free donation app is to download it or go to the website and sign up. That will help us prioritize our expansion efforts as we scale across the country.”

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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