I was sitting in the cafeteria during my first semester of university talking to my new friend, Milton. As usual, we stayed until closing time – but this time was different. As we were walking out, I peered inside the kitchen and witnessed something shocking: They were throwing out hundreds of fresh meals.
On the chilly walk home, with that image burned into my mind, I met John, a man who would change the course of my life. He appeared from around a downtown corner, his jeans ripped and his oversized hoodie concealing a young yet careworn face. He said to us, “I don’t want money, I just want food.”
It is a refrain we are hearing more and more during the pandemic. According to a recent report, food banks in Toronto reported a 45 per cent increase in visits from 2020 and 1.5 times more than in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. New food bank clients increased 61 per cent compared to the year prior.
Food is essential and should be available to every human being, especially when we as a nation have an abundance of it. As a result of my experiences that night, I committed to the process of creating a new organization called MealCare. We quickly discovered that Canada wastes $49.5 billion worth of food each year, yet one in seven families struggles to put food on the table. The objective of the MealCare program is simple: divert surplus edible food from grocery stores, cafeterias and catering companies and donate it instead to homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
MealCare ultimately matches the supply and demand between businesses and community organizations while addressing the root cause of food waste in Canada. Our operations are coordinated by student-led chapters at universities and colleges across the country.
Our delivery steps are:
- Sort and record data: MealCare volunteers go to the partner food businesses (e.g., university cafeterias, bakeries, grocery stores and restaurants) daily, weekly or bi-weekly, as decided by the business. The volunteers sort, weigh and record data on food and give it to delivery volunteers.
- Deliver: The delivery volunteers drive or walk the surplus food to soup kitchens and/or homeless shelters.
- Received and served: Food is checked by chefs and served to local beneficiaries if given to homeless shelters. If the food is given to a food bank, then it is stored and given to food-insecure members of the community.
- Data is shared: Food-waste data is given back to each partner consistently. The tracked data serves as an inventory/waste-management system for the business. We aim to provide data related to their weekly, monthly and yearly excess and basic trends and insights that will empower them to optimize their future stock purchases, reduce monetary costs and increase operational efficiency.
As a nationwide organization, MealCare has delivered more than 40,000 meals and saved our partner shelters over $200,000. These impacts are particularly important considering food insecurity is a major social determinant of health.
Food insecurity is associated with obesity, hypertension, diabetes and various other diseases and can lead to cycles of poverty. At MealCare, we work with our community organizations; providing them with healthy food allows them to use their budgets toward affordable housing, medical treatments and educational resources.
I peered inside the kitchen and witnessed something shocking: They were throwing out hundreds of fresh meals.
Food delivery organizations often divert surplus food from large grocery stores to a warehouse and then distribute it to their community partners. But that system creates its own waste:
- The organizations rely on monetary donations to continue operating;
- They are geographically constrained due to the costs of trucks, warehouses and employees;
- They simply transport excess food and are not addressing the root cause of food waste for the grocery retail and food service outlets.
Our solution is grounded on the gaps in the current approach:
- We eliminate the need for a warehouse and construct optimized delivery routes that allow our volunteers to pick up food from multiple partners before heading to the homeless shelter. Additionally, MealCare is built on a low-cost model that leverages community partnerships.
- One of MealCare’s competitive advantages is its scalability. We have eager individuals in many cities across Canada, ready to start a MealCare chapter. We also connect B2B and therefore eliminate many of the costs and geographical constraints.
- One of MealCare’s key innovations is our food waste analytics software that is geared towards long-term reduction. This data (type of food, amount, expiry date, etc.) is provided back to the businesses as weekly and monthly reports that provide basic insights and trends on their food waste. Our system’s goal is to serve as an inventory management system that matches supply-demand based on previous waste metrics.
MealCare has proven to be a scalable organization; we operate in many different universities across Canada (Montreal, Ottawa, Guelph, Toronto, London, Sherbrooke, Kingston). Furthermore, we have had an interest in opening additional chapters in Canada and the United States.
In the past, we have expanded by creating “chapters” around communities and universities, teaching young leaders entrepreneurship and management, meaning all of MealCare’s impact has been accomplished entirely through the hard work of passionate students.
MealCare has meant putting my thoughts into words, words into collective action and action into sustainable improvement. We are very proud to have created this project that has improved the health of our communities.
The author would like to thank the MealCare team for its passion and hard work and Dr. Seema Marwaha for her continued support and mentorship.