This startup is making donating leftovers as easy as throwing them away

Komal Ahmad, the 28-year-old founder and CEO of Copia, knows there’s more than enough food in the world to feed the hungry. In the past three months, Copia has fed 400,000 veterans, senior citizens, underprivileged youth , parents working three jobs, homeless, people in rehab, and others in need of food.

Extreme food waste in the presence of extreme hunger is one of the most disturbing, yet solvable, paradoxes of our time.

Launched in 2013, Copia, named after the Roman goddess of abundance, makes food accessible by redistributing it to people in need. “By reducing food waste, we save money and resources, minimize environmental impacts, and most importantly, move towards a world where everyone has enough to eat,” Ahmad said. “Extreme food waste in the presence of extreme hunger is one of the most disturbing, yet solvable, paradoxes of our time.”

Ahmad became aware of the issue when she was training to become a naval officer and medical doctor. She was approached by a homeless man who asked her for money to buy food. Instead of giving him money, she took him to lunch and learned that he was an Iraq war veteran waiting for his benefits to kick in. She also learned that he had been evicted from his home and had no money or family to fall back on.

Komal Ahmad, founder and CEO of Copia, on a food run.Courtesy of Copia

Komal Ahmad, founder and CEO of Copia, on a food run.

“It was almost like a glimpse of my future,” she said, having just returned from summer training for the Navy. “I began to realize that much of the homeless population I encountered were veterans,” she said. “This hit home for me and inspired me to create a tangible solution that can change the reality that 50 million Americans go hungry every day. I’ve built a scalable platform and company that enables businesses to seamlessly request a pickup of their excess food instead of throwing it away or composting it.”

She started thinking about forming Copia while studying at UC Berkeley. “Right across the way,” she said, “UC Berkeley’s dining halls were throwing away thousands of pounds of food.”

Wasted Food, Empty Stomachs

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that roughly 50 million Americans go hungry; meaning nearly one in six Americans have food insecurities. “In the U.S., about 40% of the food we grow never gets eaten,” said JoAnne Berkenkamp, a senior advocate in the Food and Agriculture Program at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. “We have a lot of people in the U.S. who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”

The problem is even more severe globally: the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that of the 7.3 billion people alive, about 795 million people, or one in nine, suffer from chronic undernourishment.

Approximately 10% of food waste comes from grocery stores. Another 10% comes from restaurants. A lot of produce doesn’t even make it to stores or restaurants. “At times, 25% of the crop is thrown away or fed to cattle,” said Wayde Kirschenman; his family has been growing potatoes and other vegetables near Bakersfield, CA, since the 1930s.

Other sources of food waste comes from hospitals, universities, retail stores, hotels, sport venues, food processing industries, agricultural sources, and single and multiple family households.

Finding the Recipe for a Solution

At UC Berkeley, Ahmad worked with the school’s dining executive director—overcoming concerns about liability by pointing out the protections provided by the federal Good Samaritan Food Donation Act—and started the nation’s first food recovery organization on a college campus.

Donating food, however, can be hard. Finding the right match for donations proved difficult. When a dining hall manager called to offer 500 leftover sandwiches, Ahmad rented a car and called nearby nonprofits to see who wanted the food, but only found takers for 25 sandwiches. “I thought, ‘How could I connect those with excess edible food and those who need it?’”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans waste between 30 and 40% of the food supply. Think of all the energy that’s used to produce, process, transport, prepare, store, and dispose of discarded food. This isn’t just pop corn and hot dogs. The majority of it is high-end food that winds up in landfills. Once there, it generates methane, which makes landfills the third largest source of methane in the U.S., and it’s harmful to the planet.

Methane absorbs the sun’s heat, warming the atmosphere. It’s devastating to the climate because of how effectively it absorbs heat. In the first two decades after its release, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Financially, it adds up to us throwing away $165 billion worth of food annually—the equivalent of 730 football stadiums full of food every year.

Food Systems Innovations

Copia, initially buoyed by a Big Ideas@Berkeley award and a stint at UC Berkeley startup accelerator SkyDeck, uses its website and mobile app to connect businesses and events with excess food inventory to communities in need.

Big Ideas, which helped propel Copia, ​has become ​​one of the largest university-based social ​innovation competitions in the country. Since 2006, Big Ideas has awarded $1.6 million in seed funding to 340 winning student teams, which have gone on to secure more than $100 million in additional investments. One of the contest’s most popular categories is Food System Innovations.

The magnitude of the challenges facing the food system allows any student from any discipline to be involved.

“Students are definitely drawn to this topic,” said Phillip Denny, Big Ideas manager. “It’s relevant and personal to them. The magnitude of the challenges facing the food system allows any student from any discipline to be involved.”

Since graduating, Ahmad, has changed her plans of becoming a naval officer and MD. She’s happy heading up Copia and is looking to expand operations. Currently, the Copia app and website covers 40 cities across the Bay Area, with a strong presence in major cities like San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, and Berkeley. Plans are in the works to expand to Austin, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and NW Arkansas.

Copia picks up food from 650 businesses and delivers the food to 200 nonprofits and recipient organizations seven days a week. The food is delivered within one to two hours because of health and food safety reasons.

Participating businesses go online to Copia’s website and put in their location, which is matched to a nearby food organization in need of food. An on-demand Copia driver picks up and delivers the food. The organization sends a thank you message, along with a picture and/or testimonial of the people who were fed, allowing the user to see the actual impact made in people’s lives by spending less than two minutes online to place their donation. Copia also weighs in and documents the food donation so that they can provide impact reports and help their customers benefit from tax savings.

Mat Seriff-Cullick, director of Culinary Operations at Foxtail Catering and Events in San Francisco, said his company is benefiting by partnering with Copia. “With Copia, we can access tax deductions and really promote our sustainability and environmental commitment to our customers.”

Copia welcomes competition from other food recovery companies throughout the country because their goal is to end food waste. If you run or work in a business that caters events, has an on-site cafeteria, or produces or serves food, you can Google “food recovery companies.” Add your location and you can sign up to donate food to people with food insecurities. In addition to doing good, reducing waste, and aiding the environment, your company will get a tax deduction.

Following are a handful of food recovery companies in the U.S.:

  • Rescuing Leftover Cuisine in New York City is connected with more than 100 food partners who donate whatever they have left at the end of the day.
  • City Harvest, also serving New York City, collects food from restaurants, grocers, bakeries, manufacturers, and farms and delivers it free of charge to 500 community food programs in New York City.
  • 412 Food Rescue redirects fresh, healthy food from going to landfills to serving those who are food insecure to those in Pittsburgh, PA.
  • Boston Area Gleaners organizes volunteers in and around Boston, MA, to rescue surplus farm crops for people in need. They work with 54 different farms that produce a variety of fruits and vegetables.
  • Boulder Food Rescue works with businesses in Boulder, CO, to identify food that would be thrown away and delivers it to shelters and food pantries in the city.
  • Food Rescue US transfers food from restaurants, markets, and other sources to food-insecure families in parts of Connecticut, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, DC, and New Mexico.
  • Forgotten Harvest collects surplus foods from 800 different food resources and delivers to 280 emergency food providers in and around Detroit, MI.
  • Hungry Harvest believes food with slight imperfections is still edible. Often these fruits and vegetables can’t be sold in grocery stores. Hungry Harvest’s team delivers these tasty foods to homes in Maryland, D.C., and Northern Virginia.
  • Salvation Farms recently released a study that found 14.3 million pounds of food was lost annually from Vermont farms. They work with farmers who have surplus fruits and vegetables and redistribute it to those who need it in Vermont.
  • Zero Percent believes hunger is a distribution problem. They recover and deliver food in the Chicago area.