Zero Percent aims to eliminate food waste starting with Chicago, reaching worldwide

Sonali Basak

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Mother always said to finish your food because there are starving kids in Africa. But there are also hungry people in Chicago, and Zero Percent strives to take surplus food -and match it to the people who need it.

"The country is pretty well known to throw away 40 percent of the food that we use," said CTO Caleb Phillips.

The goal: to bring food waste down to zero, and connect food surpluses from grocery stores and restaurants to collecting charities. Phillips and CEO Raj Karmani were working on a similar idea in two different cities. Karmani was pursuing his PhD in computer science Champaign, and Phillips was doing the same Boulder.

Karmani turned Zero Percent from a project into a company in October 2012 when he partnered with a national nonprofit, and he and Phillips joined forces in late summer 2013. The team joined the Impact Engine accelerator in August.  

“Technology solves multiple challenges that exists in food rescue currently,” Phillips said. Zero Percent’s product function is by finding a charity that can pick up food at a specific quantity for a specific product at that location at specific time.

University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana now uses Zero Percent to donate hundreds of pounds of food daily. It works internationally too. The team now works  with 54 nonprofits, 34 donors and has delivered close to 160,000 meals.

Karmani said there are 70,000 nonprofits tackling hunger relief in the U.S. alone. Still, "Only last year, hunger increased by 6 percent in the Chicago area," he said. But "food insecurity has gone up 30 to 40 percent since 2006."

"On one hand we have so much food waste, on the other hand hunger keeps increasing."  

The move to Chicago has been poignant for the team. “When you come to Chicago and it’s a large, high density community, we are then reevaluating our technologies,” he said. While charities in Champaign and Dublin would pursue pick-ups, the Zero Percent teams does pickups themselves in Chicago and certify their drivers for food sanitation.

They  began Chicago deliveries in early December. The first grocer to donate food was Goddess and Grocer, high end small grocery and deli. They've grown to include Hannah's Bretzel with five loop locations and Dimo’s Pizza. Two charities picking up food are the Salvation Army and Inner Voice Veteran's House.

Karmani says they seek to scale the model built in the Chicago area moving toward more than  1,000 lb of donations per week and constructing more efficient routes for pick ups and deliveries.

And Phillips added: "If we can do food rescue here in a sustainable and efficient way -- if we can make it work here, we can make it work anywhere.”

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