Chance encounter at event last year led to a remarkable feat of altruism in Los Angeles

Actress Freida Pinto and entrepreneur Komal Ahmad met at the 2016 Women in the World Summit. Less than a year later, the two came together to help feed more than 1,000 hungry people in L.A.

Freida Pinto and Komal Ahmad (Michael Amico).

Freida Pinto was at the Golden Globes after-party this year when she was struck by something odd: Lavish hors d’oeuvres were being passed around on trays, but no one was eating them.

“Everyone was in beautiful, tight corsets, or they were drinking, or it’s messy and they don’t want to spill — whatever the reason, people weren’t eating the food,” she told Women in the World in an interview.

Asking around to other guests and organizers, Pinto soon realized what would happen to the leftovers at the end of the night. “I asked, ‘Where does this food go?’ and no one had an answer,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Well, clearly in a trash can.’”

That’s when Pinto remembered meeting Komal Ahmad, founder and CEO of the food redistribution app Copia, at last year’s Women in the World Summit. Pinto called Women in the World founder and CEO Tina Brown, who put her in touch with Ahmad, and the result — just weeks later — was a rollout of Copia at some of the most elite parties in Los Angeles: The Vanity Fair Academy Awards after-party, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the Women in Film party.

“Both Komal and I knew,” Pinto said, “if you want people to take note, you go to one of the biggest platforms and the biggest awards ceremonies around.”

Launched by Ahmad five years ago, Copia was conceived when Ahmad encountered a homeless veteran near the University of California, Berkeley, where she was a student at the time. Recently discharged from Iraq, the man was waiting for his benefits to kick in. In the meantime, says Ahmad, he hadn’t eaten for three days.

“Adding insult to injury,” Ahmad said in an interview, “Berkeley’s dining hall is right across the street, and is throwing away thousands of pounds of food.”

“Lack of food is not the issue,” she continued. “It’s a distribution problem.”

Ahmad came up with an algorithm that addresses that issue directly by calculating the amount of excess food at a given event or venue and matching it up to the real-time needs of non-profits in the area. “We then dispatch a driver who is a professional food handler, and in full circle, we detail for the company afterwards how many people it fed,” Ahmad explained. The clever application earned Ahmad the distinction as a 2016 Toyota Mother of Invention, an honor she received at last year’s Women in the World D.C. Salon. The award also comes with a $50,000 grant to help fuel Copia’s next stage of growth.

The concept struck a deep chord in Pinto, who has also appeared on the Women in the World stage, when she heard Ahmad speak last year. Raised in Mumbai, Pinto says that in her family’s culture, food is never thrown away. Large meals are always shared, and leftovers from dinner are used to cook in the morning.

A child seen eating food that was recovered after an award show by Copia, and redistributed to needy people at the Los Angeles LGBT event center. (Michael Amico)

“We don’t throw away vegetables or anything,” she said. “They get blended into something else. So the concept of not throwing away food has been very much ingrained in me. It’s impossible for me to fathom what would happen to 1,366 pounds of food otherwise.”

Having lived in Los Angeles for five years now and seen “homelessness and hunger in a town which is a city of excess, of dreams coming true, of people being blessed with a lot of wealth,” she felt deeply that the city’s divide needed bridging, and quickly. Ahmad agreed. “We’ve done this at the Super Bowl, we’ve heard from senior government officials in Germany who want to expand food distribution to Syrian immigrants, so we know know that these are great opportunities,” she said. The fact that Los Angeles has the highest population of homeless individuals in the country only added to the urgency.

Getting award shows to participate was more a question of logistics than desire, Pinto said. Many people want to give back or to redistribute their excess food, but don’t know how. “The biggest problem is a lack of awareness, and lack of information and education on how one can do this,” she says. “I feel there has been a missing link, and Copia figured it out.”

The Independent Spirit Awards presented their biggest challenge — and also their biggest success. The dinner fell on the night after the Women in Film party, and as far as Pinto knew, Ahmad’s workers were entirely occupied with delivering the food they had collected the night before.

“I didn’t think we’d have the bandwidth to come collect from the Indie Spirit Awards,” she said.

But the food was so good — and so plentiful — that Pinto felt she had to do something. She texted Ahmad, who immediately replied that they could be there. “Komal never says no; she just texts ‘yes,’” said Pinto. “Like, she will figure it out, it’s just a plain and simple ‘yes,’ there is nothing more to say.”

Copia workers gather food that would otherwise be discarded. (Michael Amico)

That yes turned into another yes from the head of catering at the awards show, and by the end of the night, 500 people had been fed outside of the event. Pinto and Ahmad partnered with several local shelters, including the L.A. Mission, The Good Shepherd Shelter, the L.A. LGBT Center, and the International Rescue Committee.

“It’s not asking for an arm and a leg,” said Pinto. “It’s asking for your leftover food, your blessing, and to let us share your amazing food with everyone else.”

All told, Ahmad and Pinto’s efforts redistributed 1,366 pounds of food to 1,116 people over the course of those three days. The two hope to roll out at more events in the city, and meanwhile, Copia is going global.

“We are expanding pretty quickly,” says Ahmad. “We want to harness the goodwill of incredible people like Freida and Tina Brown and Women in the World to expand the concept of doing good with your mobile phone.

“You use your phone to order an Uber, to swipe right, to order food,” she added, “so why not help feed someone in need?”

Women in the World is holding its 2017 L.A. Salon on Tuesday and Toyota will name a new Mother of Invention at that event. Below, watch Ahmad’s appearance at last year’s New York Summit, where she said, “Hunger is the world’s dumbest problem, especially in the world’s wealthiest country.” And to for details and ticketing information for this year’s Summit, click here.


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