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The moral tragedy that cities can fix (and how technology can help)

I was privileged to organize and moderate a panel on hunger and food waste at Smart Cities Week 2016 – the Council's second-annual conference and exhibition in Washington, D.C. The session – What Bright Minds are Doing to Close the Hunger Gap and Reduce Food Waste in Cities Like Yours – featured four incredibly inspiring panelists with first-hand knowledge of how technology is addressing food insecurity in cities today. I wish more people could have heard their message.
—Liz Enbysk, Compassionate Cities editor


One woman from the audience stood at the microphone and suggested it was the best session of the day – and wondered why more city leaders weren't in attendance.

A good question in a country where 40% of the food is never eaten yet children go to bed hungry or malnourished. 

A "moral tragedy" is how JoAnne Berkenkamp, a senior food policy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) put it during the discussion hosted by the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative. Berkenkamp believes the problem is fixable.

In fact, NRDC is currently working with the cities of Denver, Nashville and New York City on a $1 million Rockefeller Foundation-funded food waste study. The goal is to get a read on how much food that's being thrown out in those cities could be donated – and how much a dent that would make in each city's meals gap.

Most cities, Berkenkamp says, have no idea how much food is wasted in their homes and businesses. It does make you wonder why hunger and food waste aren't higher on the agenda at city halls.

Taking hunger off the map
Jody Tick knows how many are going hungry in the D.C. metro area. Tick is Senior Director of Food Resources, Information Technology, and Programs for the Capital Area Food Bank.

Her nonprofit uses a data-driven "heat map" to show where hunger is most pronounced in the communities they serve so they can prioritize food distribution. Working with partners, the map also helps avoid duplication of effort.

"We want to take hunger off the map," Tick says. The Washington Post has suggested the tech-based approach the Capital Area Food Bank is using could one day revolutionize the war on hunger.

According to Berkenkamp, reducing food losses by 30% would feed 50 million Americans. The Environmental Protection Agency wants to do better than that; it has set a goal of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030. Berkenkamp calls that goal ambitious.

Don't tell that to Hannah Dehradunwala, a very determined millennial whose nonprofit startup is out to create a cultural revolution which changes the way people view their extra food and spur a more conscious society.

Dehradunwala is Co-founder and Executive Director of Transfernation, a tech-based nonprofit that uses an Uber-like app and an army of volunteers to redistribute extra food from corporate events and cafeterias to homeless shelters and soup kitchens in New York City.

As Dehradunwala says, Transfernation provides a quick way for people to put "doing a good thing" into their day. It's a platform she says they hope to offer in more cities soon.

Give a man a fish
Ron Reynolds, meanwhile, believes his urban agriculture startup can change lives by promoting economic development and providing jobs and STEM training where it matters most.

Reynolds is Chairman and Co-Founder of Green Collar Foods (GCF), a scalable inner-city controlled environment agriculture (CEA) business that combines indoor aeroponic food production, world-class university partnerships with next-generation Microsoft Azure cloud technology. GCF's first urban ag hub launched in Detroit and its network has expanded to Bridgeport, Connecticut and partners with public and land-grant universities from Florida to England. Watch a video about Green Collar Foods.

Although the problem of food waste and re-distribution of food will continue to be improved by technology, Reynolds suggests we also need to create "pockets of food creation" within the same communities where this food is being re-distributed.   

GCF wants to connect the movement of better, healthier eating and trace-ability within the food system and extend it to creating economic opportunities (i.e. ownership) for communities to financially participate. Reynolds cites the proverb: "Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime."

More on this topic:
Why more mayors are putting food on the agenda
5 ways out-of-the-box thinking, compassion and tech are reducing hunger
Elk Grove's smart idea: Using social media to feed the hungry

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