The ‘DoorDash’ for Leftover Food Takes Flight Amid New York Lockdown
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In the gig economy, donating your leftover food can now be done on demand.
On weekday mornings, Neftaly Gonzalez hops off his electric cargo bike to pick up food from a Dig Inn location, a fast-casual restaurant, in Manhattan’s Financial District. A manager lets the 28-year-old courier inside and hands him large aluminum trays of prepared food, refrigerated from the night before.
But Gonzalez — who also works for DoorDash, Postmates and Uber — isn’t about to drop food off for an app user around a locked-down city where takeout food has taken over. He’s off to a charity called North Brooklyn Angels in Williamsburg, which is distributing meals from a food truck.
Gonzalez is an independent contractor who works for Transfernation, a platform that in normal times redistributes leftover prepared food from restaurants and companies to places like homeless shelters and food pantries. But now the coronavirus pandemic and citywide lockdown has sent the on-demand food rescue service into overdrive.
It’s required creative thinking from founder and CEO Hannah Dehradunwala, who piloted the “Uber for excess food” in 2015 and launched the app in 2016. Although many clients’ offices are on hiatus, Dehradunwala identified programs across the city that need food delivery and is keeping her fleet of cargo bikers employed by distributing meals that partners like Dig Inn are making for agencies — with plans to feed roughly 500 people weekly at three senior centers, and more to come.
“There’s so much going on that there’s almost no time to feel overwhelmed,” says Dehradunwala. A typical day now has her on more than 30 phone calls by the afternoon. “I’m just trying to take everything as it comes and make sure that we’re doing three things,” she says. That includes finding programs that need support, leveraging her rider base to keep them employed and ensuring that food from organizations or corporations is reaching the places it needs to go.
In typical times, clients schedule pickups on the app for up to 2,000 pounds of mostly untouched leftovers. Transfernation initially offered the service for free but companies now must pay a delivery fee ($400 monthly for unlimited, $35 per pickup, and varying options in between) which they can write off on their taxes. (Transfernation is currently a nonprofit but planning to switch to a B Corporation, a for-profit company dedicated to social good.)
On average, clients write off at least $10,000 from their taxes each year, Dehradunwala tells me, clad in a white Patagonia jacket and baseball cap on a cold February day, before New York turned into a ghost town. Transfernation has distributed more than 1.8 million meals and diverted 2 million pounds of food from landfills. The platform, which also partners with DoorDash, boasts corporations like NBC, Blackstone and American Express among its 76 clients, has a small presence in New Jersey and plans to reach Philadelphia and Boston this year, she says.
The enthusiasm of early adopters shows this is “something people want to do, there’s just often not a way for them to do it in a way that’s easy,” says the 27-year-old, speaking passionately, her eyes bright. Companies support efforts to reduce food waste or insecurity — but the challenge is convincing people to pay for it, rather than shunting charity into small acts around the holidays.
What I absolutely hate is when I get a call from an office [during the holidays] that’s like ‘we’re getting together and making 400 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.’
The middle sister of three, the Maryland native spent much of her childhood in Pakistan, where she had a front-row seat to wealth disparity. Her family moved to Saudi Arabia for a year before Dehradunwala attended New York University, where she took studio art and political science classes. In the U.S., Dehradunwala was struck by the culture of excess and the way people valued quality restaurant meals or home cooking — but considered it garbage once the meal ended. She wondered: If all services are on-demand now, why must it be so difficult to find a place for perfectly good, untouched food?
That question led her and a friend to pitch an early concept of Transfernation in an NYU business contest. It failed miserably, says Dehradunwala, who has a stutter — one that disappears when she talks energetically about her ideas. “It was stutter central,” she says, flashing a smile. After graduation, Dehradunwala landed a consulting job but pursued Transfernation full time at the encouragement of her father.
She had no trouble finding initial clients — yet getting them to pay to provide leftovers, when they hadn’t before, proved thorny. But charity doesn’t mean free, Dehradunwala argues animatedly. She’s ensured that drivers earn similar wages to what they’d make on DoorDash.
Although seven clients dropped Transfernation after the new pricing scheme, six returned. Dehradunwala has had to confront companies that have what she calls an annual “goodness quota” (she’s a liberal user of air quotes). “What I absolutely hate is when I get a call from an office [during the holidays] that’s like ‘we’re getting together and making 400 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,’” when the cafeteria throws out food daily, she says, her voice rising. “They think that because they did that one mitzvah, they’re good for the rest of the year.” And besides, she adds, “What shelter is going to want 400 PB&Js?”
When she spots an illogical gap not yet resolved, “there can be a real intensity around her around getting something done,” says Russ Finkelstein, who mentored Dehradunwala through the 2019 Roddenberry Fellowship for activist-innovators, which she won. Her rare free time, however, she dedicates to performing improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade.
Dehradunwala recognizes Transfernation isn’t “solving the hunger problem.” She adds, firmly: “Hunger will be solved when people can afford to buy their own food.”
Still, she’s trying to reframe the conversation around corporate giving. Her brand of ‘good work’ is not sexy. There aren’t any T-shirts and photo ops — just somebody moving food on an electric bicycle. But amid havoc and lockdowns, the world is discovering the value of such simple services. With a potential recession on the horizon, Dehradunwala is building out a “robust Rolodex” of recipient agencies — as the hunger for what she’s created is only growing.