Komal Ahmad has a plan – and an app – to end hunger in America.
Ahmad is the founder and CEO of Copia, an online platform that connects businesses with leftover food to local organizations that can distribute that food to people in need. She’s called it the Uber of food donation.
“It is the sexiest thing that you could solve instantly,” she said at the Women in the World Salon in Los Angeles on Tuesday. “You could order food from your phone. You could find your future partner. You can do so many things. But now we can also do something that’s good for your company, that’s good for your company’s brand, that is good for the community, that’s good for your body and mind, and that makes you feel good too.”
At the Salon on Tuesday, Toyota official Dionne Colvin-Lovely named Ahmad one of the company’s 2016 “Mothers of Invention,” an award that comes with a $50,000 grant to help fuel the next phase of growth for Copia around the country.
“I’m so humbled and honored,” Ahmad said, adding in a joke that Toyota could possibly offer up its “fleet” for good as well.
In a conversation with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Ahmad recalled the life-changing moment she went through that made her want to help end hunger in America.
While an undergraduate at the University of California Berkeley, Ahmad was walking down the street when she was approached by a homeless man who asked her for money to buy food. Instead of giving him a few bucks, Ahmad decided to take him out to lunch and discovered that he was an Iraq war veteran. She said his benefits hadn’t yet kicked in, he’d just gotten evicted from his house, he had no money or family to fall back on, and he hadn’t eaten in three days.
“That hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said, noting that she’d just gotten back from summer training for the U.S. Navy and was about to join as an officer. “It was almost like a glimpse of my future. This was a perfectly educated guy, came from a good family. There was nothing mentally unstable about him. He was just a person who was down on his luck.”
Across the street from where Ahmad and the man had eaten lunch, the university’s cafeteria was throwing out thousands of pounds of leftover food. Right then, the dual problems of hunger and food waste struck her.
“Those who have and are wasting and those who need and are starving — and they’re both living quite literally right across the street from each other,” she said. “That’s just ridiculous.”
Ahmad launched Feeding Forward, a local service that began with UC Berkeley’s cafeteria in 2011 and has since grown into the tech startup Copia, which has now distributed some 600,000 pounds of food to 720,000 people in need across the San Francisco Bay Area, according to the company.
Companies with excess food pay a small fee to have Copia drivers come pick up the food and bring it to local non-profit organizations. The company built a piece of technology that matches the given amount of food with the nearest organization in need.
“Everyone wins,” Ahmad said. “We win because we’re feeding hundreds of thousands of people – including veterans, especially, and children and women. And corporations get to reduce the amount of food that they’re wasting. They reduce disposal costs. They get to feed people directly in their community, which is awesome. And we also help our environment.”
With the Super Bowl held in the Bay Area this past weekend, Copia launched a massive drive, doing three pickups of food throughout the night that led to them to feeding over 41,000 people. Ahmad said that she has also heard from government officials in Germany and Austria, expressing interest in bringing her platform to European soil to help the region’s recent massive influx of Syrian refugees.
As Copia expands, Ahmad said that she hopes her phone app will set the stage for new platforms that can redistribute a wider array of necessities, like medicine and medical supplies.
“Feed it on,” she said. “Pass these blessings forward.”