Megha Kulshreshtha took what she learned as a corporate data analyst and focused on the growing problem of food insecurity in America’s urban centers. She launched an organization that is using mobile technology to make it easier to collect food donations on demand so they can reach people who need them the most.
Together we discuss the innovation and technology that Food Connect uses to make it easy for restaurants to donate excess food to shelters and other hunger-fighting organizations. Megha shares lessons she has learned while forming a non-profit, how she manages the logistics of handling inconsistent donations, and a look at the impact that Food Connect could have in cities around the country.
Mentioned In This Episode
[1:17] The reality of food insecurity and how it inspired the Food Connect movement.
[4:54] The process of turning food waste into donations starts with educating the community.
[7:34] How Food Connect utilizes innovation and technology in their surplus food gathering efforts.
[9:24] The process of converting an organization from an LLC into a 501(c)(3).
[12:54] Megha shares the lessons she has learned while transitioning from the driver to the leader of Food Connect.
[15:28] Tips for securing the resources and funding that any organization needs to grow.
[22:15] The value of creating consistent systems that work in an inconsistent donation environment and utilizing a volunteer network.
[24:44] A list of current needs at donation sites and looking ahead to the future of Food Connect.
[31:20] The long-term impact on families that are receiving the donations from Food Connect and how listeners can get involved.
Joe (00:00): I'm Joe Taylor Jr. Welcome to The Build joined this week by Megha Kulshreshtha. Welcome to the show. Megha (00:15): Hi, thanks for having me. Joe (00:16): So, Food Connect Group, Philadelphia. We're here in the middle of Rittenhouse Row. We think that this is a place of abundance, but it turns out Philadelphia is ranked as one of the most food insecure urban centers in the country and the highest incidents of food insecurity in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. So, tell our listeners who might not be familiar with that term. What do we mean when we say food insecure? Megha (00:43): Yeah, so food insecurity really at its most basic level just means that you don't know where your next meal is coming from. So, a lot of times it's not just homelessness that causes food insecurity, someone can be employed, it's just that between rent and bills, meal planning becomes really difficult. So it's a broad spectrum, a spectrum of hunger. Joe (01:10): And this falls into, or hear you say the word hunger. We used to talk about the phrase hunger in very broad terms and food insecurity hits to that point where this is not necessarily as much a homelessness problem as it is a set of broader societal issues. We talk about the idea of a food desert, meaning that there are parts of the city where you are not remotely in walking distance of a fresh vegetable. Megha (01:36): Right, right. And it's a lot of flies under the radar. It's not as in your face, so we don't necessarily know when we're looking at it. So, a lot of times when we look at Philadelphia, this is one of the things that we hear about it, but you may not see it as much, so you never know kind of what to do about it. Aside from, like I said, if it's in your face. Joe (02:00): So, take us back to about three years ago, you're going to attend Philly Startup Weekend, which normally folks go to things like that or to hackathons and they want to come up with an idea for a business or an algorithm or an app and you come out of it with a movement. Tell us a little bit about what you were thinking you were getting into when you went into that and how it turned into what you're now calling Food Connect Group. Megha (02:27): Yeah, it was, I remember that weekend because, I did walk into it kind of ready to use my business skills. My background, I've been in finance for five and a half years, so data analytics research and, I remember the moment when there were a bunch of options of what teams we could go and choose from. And this cause just spoke to me, because every day I see it when I'm commuting to work and I just see people that are hungry and I see stores throwing out food and a few months even before that, I actually went to restaurants and asked them, what are you doing with this food that you're throwing away? And so it just, for some reason it's kind of always struck a chord with me that somebody is going hungry when I have a full plate of food. So that cause, really spoke to me that weekend and just walking out of that weekend, it's just been something that, I believe in it, that weekend itself, there is extra food and we saw right away there was a need for it. And from that moment on, it's never failed me that there's always a proof that the service needs to be executed on it. Joe (03:47): And so thinking like a good data analyst, you start piecing together all the parts of this puzzle. And so on one side you have caterers, restaurants, hotels, organizations that have an abundance of food. And it's usually because if we're sitting in a place of privilege, we have leftovers, but there are often very stringent rules about what you can do with that stuff. And it seems even though, my understanding is there are rules on the books going back to the mid nineties that actually protect folks from being sued, from being charged with, you know, attempting to poison somebody. There are still these concerns that folks have about what can I do with food that's been prepared or processed in a way that's not, you know, canned rations. So what did you learn when you start talking to restaurants and folks in that community about what they felt about food waste and how that could be turned into something positive? Megha (04:48): Yeah, I think when I started talking to the restaurants, it was really just a grassroots effort and trying to understand why people aren't donating. These restaurants have resources. They have teams that can, do outreach. They have legal teams that can put these things in place. But, I think the restaurants are not in the business of donating food. They're in the business of running their restaurant. And to keep their business alive, which makes perfect sense. But, a lot of times restaurants don't know that they can donate the surplus food under the same laws that they're already following to package that food and to serve that food to their existing clients. So, for me it really just became an educational effort for the donors. There was just a lot of fear around donating food. Oh, I heard this story. Somebody got arrested. We just like to stay clear of it, which makes sense because you want to limit your liability. So I think Food Connect was an effort to just put in common sense practices in an area where donors could feel safe about donating. Joe (05:56): So, a lot of this is education. It's removing fear, it's removing the barriers. So, you go into a restaurant and you say, we'll take this stuff off your hands. You don't really have to do anything other than let us know that it's here. So, we're eliminating the fear, we're eliminating the legal barrier, we're eliminating the utility, the feeling among some folks that this is going to cost me more or I have to put more effort into getting this stuff ready. So, now on the other end of the spectrum, or at least the, the second point in this triangle, you now have drivers, you have folks that are actually transporting the food from the donors to the recipients in an era that is becoming broadly defined by apps like Uber and Lyft. How do you start to turn that kind of thought into a way to get this stuff from point a to point b? Megha (06:54): Yeah, I think a lot of this is the logistical nightmare sometimes when you're trying to figure out how to find predictable patterns in an unpredictable space. Surplus food is very unpredictable. So, it's not like you can always schedule these deliveries. So, I think from the logistical standpoint, the thing I love about Food Connect is that we're leveraging the city's existing resources. So, awesome organizations like Philabundance or the Share Food Program or a few others that already have hunger relief efforts in place, our technology allows all of us to communicate in real time. So, during the DNC this past summer, we were able to organize a lot of vehicles and a lot of drivers that are already in the city. So many hunger relief organizations already are doing such wonderful work. It's just that not everybody's talking to one another and the technology allows us to do that. And so that's why I think even like you mentioned, Uber and Lyft, there are so many transportation apps and I think if we can just start using the existing resources we already have in a smarter way, we can really make a dent in the surplus food that we see and get it to where it needs to go. Joe (08:18): A lot of folks that come on the show talk a little bit about how they're disrupting incumbents inside a vertical industry and to think about a social impact a for profit technically is what Food Connect Group is set up as, right? You're an LLC as opposed to a nonprofit organization? Megha (08:38): We started off as an LLC just to protect myself from the liability, because I was running the food deliveries in my evenings and weekends, but we are now a 501C3 nonprofit, since last early to mid last year. Joe (08:57): Okay, well that opens up, we have a bunch of listeners that get really fascinated by stuff like that. So, walk us through the process of converting an organization from a limited liability corporation into the 501C3. Obviously there's tax benefits, but I think there are other things that you had to give up and some things that you get out of that transition, right? Megha (09:20): Yeah, I think it kind of boils down to motivation of what I wanted Food Connect to what purpose did it serve. So for me, initially it started out as I have restaurants who are ready to donate this surplus food, I'm going to start driving it to the shelters that are asking for it. From there we started getting volunteers and interest in more donors. So now that volunteers were involved, I thought, well, I should do something. I don't have a legal background, but I read up on it a little bit and asked a few people and so I started an LLC and the process is pretty straightforward online where you can just set up your company and there's paperwork involved. I don't want to over simplify, but, it really was just me kind of doing some research from the LLC, I knew that this, is not a moneymaking model in the sense that my motivation for doing it was really to bring new, innovative, cutting-edge technology into the nonprofit space to make an impact. There's so many wonderful efforts going on, how do we leverage those in a smart way? So, I think for me, I started looking at the 501C3 paperwork. It was a little intimidating, which is why I started with the LLC to begin with. So, over time my dad helped me with it. I had a few other people, just kind of advise me on how to start the paperwork. So for me, it was really just starting the paperwork for it. You pretty much create a new nonprofit organization and yeah, I mean I wouldn't be able to walk you through all the specifics, because I had hoped Joe (11:13): Well that would be for we've got friends who do legal podcast so we will leave that for them. But I think the interesting, the compelling thing for me is in the same way that someone might just start a business because they see an unmet need. What we observe here is that you saw on an unmet need and started an organization and beyond just getting through that paperwork, you've spent more time developing the technology and the algorithms behind it. What's been your transition from running all these things around yourself in your car to actually leading people, you know, volunteers, coalitions of agencies? What have you learned about what it takes to martial those resources and get everybody moving in the same direction? Megha (12:05): I'm a firm believer in if you build it, they will come. So for me, I really started at the very basic level. How do we transport food from point a to point b? So, it's always been a process thing for me. I started everything with just pen and paper. I would hand write the receipts. I would write out what shelters wanted this food, their hours, you know, lots of their preferences, their restrictions and just start mapping it out. And I did it intentionally on hand, which was a little tough, because from my background, I like to go straight to the computer and start figuring things out. But, I think it's really important before you implement something, to think it through and even to implement technology. Right? In my opinion, it's better to map it out, kind of go through the emotion of it before you build out something. Because especially as a smaller organization with not many resources, you don't want to put money or resources into features that aren't gonna prove to be useful. So, I started out just handwriting everything and mapping it out. And from there, it was a very slow process of building out the technology in its most basic form. Even our app, if you use our app, it's gonna be simple fields that people can fill out. There's not a ton of bells and whistles and it's been a very intentional iteration of the technology, because I don't want to just dump money into all these ideas that sound good mainly, because we don't have the resources for it, but also, because it's just becomes a waste of time if it's not going to be used. Joe (13:53): Well, I think that's the other interesting thing about how most of the 501C3s that I've been involved in over time, the metrics are very different than a for profit organization, right? Because one of the things that you're trying to do is make sure as much of the resources that come into the organization have to go toward your mission, your goal compared to a startup where you might not be worried about burning through a whole lot of capital in the short amount of time. You're trying to preserve resources or make sure that you can justify whatever expenses you're making. So when you're, when you're thinking about that as you plan on growing the organization, what are the resources that you need to grow? is it just a brute force labor to move things around? Is it more partnerships? Is it more technology? What's on your shopping list right now? Megha (14:43): I think the biggest thing, and it's been a little bit of a challenge for me just because it's not my expertise, but it really is getting funding, It's not my world to know what to say and who to go to and I think it may be somewhat of an inner circle to know where to go. So, that's been really new to me. Like I said, I've been so process focused and, and execution focused where I'm just trying to solve this problem and figure out the best way to do it. And we've gotten so much organic traction just based on that, that there is a lot of donors that are reaching out to me every week and a lot of recipients that are really excited to get this food. So, I think if I continue to follow that and just teach myself these other skills or, hope that people are motivated enough, it's just something like funding is one thing, just getting a little bit of funding to get some more consistent operational help would be really great. Joe (15:49): I think you bring up something that I hear often about the nonprofit sector, especially in an old city like Philadelphia, a lot of this is dominated by old family foundations, by nonprofits that have been around, or in existence for a long time. And so, here comes Food Connect Group ready to disrupt, right? And you are not necessarily at those big foundation meetings, you're not at those gala fundraisers, you're really approaching it from the bottom up. So, when you start to approach some of those more established folks that have been working in this space, what's the reaction that they have? Were you bringing them ideas that they were kind of noodling around with? Had there been somebody talking about doing something like this internally or was this entirely new thought to them when he brought it to them? Megha (16:46): You know, I don't know if I have brought it to them. Joe (16:51): They could be finding out about it right now. Megha (16:54): Right, exactly. I think a lot of it has been when people see the work that we're doing and the impact that it's making, everyone gets very excited and says, hey, I know somebody that you can talk to and then if I talk to them, I know somebody that you can talk to. So it's been a lot of you're doing such wonderful work. Let me put you in touch with somebody. But it's almost, I don't know where those lead and again, there's a trade off with time. There's only so much I can put into meetings and phone calls at the cost of the daily operations of getting the deliveries where they need to go. So, I have to be really smart with my time to make sure that the actual cause, does it suffer with limited time? Time is also a resource, so making sure I use that wisely. Joe (17:43): And on top of this, you still have a day job. So you're still working and your day job is pretty intense to begin with, like this is not. Tell us a little bit about what you're doing, where you pull down a paycheck. Megha (18:00): Yeah and that's kind of the interesting thing, because I've paid for Food Connect out of my pocket when we didn't have funding and right now I am in real estate, I manage all of our renovation projects and I manage the daily rental processes, so I just kind of, it's project based with some running all of those and a lot of that is a pretty fast paced. So, it's just kind of keeping those things organized and making sure everybody has what they need to make sure we're meeting our timelines and our budgets and our deadlines. And then I think what I like about it though is it does give me the flexibility to kind of juggle between the two when I need to. So, but again, it also helps from financing my life, because Food Connect is not, like I said, I didn't go into it thinking this is going to be my income. Joe (19:00): Yeah, and I think that's a big distinction too, because a lot of folks that start something like this want to have an impact beyond just writing a check. You know, there are plenty of folks that, and even that, as someone who came up through the nonprofit community, I can tell you, I joke with folks when I worked in public radio. When you hear someone on public radio trying to sell you a tote bag for $40, it's not because they have a passion for bags, it's because they really need that $40 and that $40 makes a huge impact for a variety of reasons. So, as you pivot into this mode of actually soliciting donations of time, donations of money, donations of food, what are you doing? What systems are you putting in place to allow you to continue to manage this in a way that it doesn't get out of hand for you? And for the team that you're putting together. Megha (19:54): Yeah, for me, the way I prioritize it is that the donations take priority. So, for me that's the reason I started doing it and I think that is the backbone of it all. If as long as these donations, when people have surplus food, we need to make sure that it gets to where it needs to go. So, there are times where if a volunteer cancels or if something didn't go as planned, I hop in my car, I scramble things around, and I get that food where it needs to go. So, it's just developing that level of consistency. So again, donors feel comfortable donating. But then from there I start to think of the bigger picture stuff, which is making sure that we're putting in the right processes, so that if new volunteers can have time, they can easily kind of buy into that process of here's the schedule, this is what shifts you can sign up for, here's the training. Just putting those pieces in place, I've invested a lot of time and making sure those pieces are in place. So, when people are interested, your time can go a long way or your money can go a long way or your donations can go a long way. Joe (21:08): It's the power of having a system and a process in place so that you can really maximize that input. So walk us through a typical day. How far in advance do you know that a donor is going to have food for you to pick up? Megha (21:26): So, not very far in advance. So, it's really ad hoc. Sometimes we'll know a few hours ahead of time. If it's larger donations, sometimes people will email us and say, hey, we have an event coming up. but really it's just ad hoc where people have extra food. Snap Kitchen is one of our daily donor donors right here in the city and they sometimes have extra food, sometimes they don't, and they have multiple locations all over the city. So, they pretty much schedule it right on their phone every single day, anytime they have, even if it's two bags of salad, maybe eight, ten different individuals salad packs and they'll just schedule it and give us maybe like a three hour window and we just make sure that we're routing our drivers, because on our platform, we can kind of route them in an optimized way where they can do three pickups on their way to the dropoff site. So, there's a lot of different ways that we kind of manage it to make it efficient. But again, it's just the nature of surplus food where you don't really always have a heads up and you have to make sure you create consistent systems around an inconsistent donation Joe (22:42): And so in that respect, a lot of the power of your platform is in your volunteers. And so how many volunteers might you have on call on a given evening? Speaker 2 (22:55): So, what's pretty cool about how we're using our platform is that you don't need a ton of people on call. Like I said, with Food Connect, we use existing resources, so anytime we have large donations come up, I know I can call Philabundance, I can dispatch Philabundance or the Share Food Program and they will send one of their vehicles out. Joe (23:19): So, they've got folks and so really the missing link that you're providing here is that technology stack to inform them of, you know, you're putting up the bat signal, you know, that they can get one of their folks over, right? Or as you said before, as the cases get worse and worse, it's you hopping in the car or maybe you even calling a Lyft and getting somebody in a car with a whole bunch of food to get from point a to point b. For the donation sites, what are the things that those sites are in the most need of? What are the kinds of things that they can accept? What are some things that folks probably think they would want but they don't need? Megha (24:06): So, a lot of these meal sites and shelters, they love getting healthy donations and I'll go back to Snap Kitchen on that, every single day they have packets of solids or yogurt or nuts or a chia seed cereal, really awesome stuff, and it gets transported right to the shelter. So, I think a lot of this is just the shelters love receiving healthy food or even restaurants that order too many bags of lettuce or just produce that that people can cook with, so I think that's a large component of it. And then the other things would be different meats and lunch meats and things like that that also really go a long way. Joe (24:53): And on the flip side, what we often see at large events usually are things like canned food drives which are effective for stocking up a food pantry, but you can't just live on dozens and dozens of cans of soup. It's that fresh food factor. And to provide folks with some context, I'm fascinated with Snap Kitchen, because I believe they're in about four or five cities right now. They're doing these great little pre-packaged heat and eat meals, but all of their stuff is really healthy. There's no preservatives. I think that's also why it's kind of a volatile stock, because they don't leave anything on their shelf for more than two or three days. Megha (25:36): Right, everything's fresh. Joe (25:37): Yeah, I'm used to going in there and getting, you know, a four ounce piece of salmon and a little salad for about 10 bucks, but that's not something that can stay on the shelf for very long. So, how delightful it is to know that kind of in their profit margin somewhere, I mean I'm sure there's someone looking at a spreadsheet at Snap Kitchen that would much rather not have any food waste, but knowing that if there is going to be some, it's going to get used. I don't think any chef or food professional I've ever met aspires to have food just not being enjoyed by someone. Right, but it's that big fall off between what what you are I might do to treat ourselves to a $100 meal somewhere and all of the extra ingredients that can't be held over for the next day have to go somewhere that's not a landfill. And so this a combination of education and the technology stack designed to make that happen in a way that doesn't necessarily put strain on the restaurants and leverages the folks that are already doing this work on boots on the ground in communities. So thinking ahead, right? As you think about the next 10 years for Food Connect Group, how big can this get? Do you maximize in Philadelphia and then move into other communities? Do you turn this into a way that you can train other people to create things like this? Where do you see this going? Megha (27:13): I think for me, I really believe in the process of leveraging these existing resources, so the initial focus will be just to build out the technology and to allow that to make our distribution even smarter. If you think about it, a lot of it ends up costing us more as a society when we have so many restaurants preparing all of this food, transporting it, then paying for trash services and then having even more transportation added to then take it to a landfill and then whatever costs are associated with maintaining that landfill or doing something after. So, I think a simple solution is once this food is already in use, just optimizing that to make sure that it ends up being used. Just using resources the way they're supposed to be and I think the initial part will be just building out the technology. And then in terms of getting it to other places, there have been cities reaching out that are very excited to bring Food Connect there. And I think for me, I just really want to just bring that process to places that need it and want it and for me, it's really about bringing these existing hunger relief efforts and providing them, even a better mechanism to do their distribution and make it a little bit more seamless. So, if you're in another city and you and you're trying to get surplus food to where it needs to go, leveraging our technology to make sure that you have extra vehicles if you need it or you can tap into another organization that's doing it. I think what we've been able to do, again with the DNC and what we'll be able to do, I think we have the NFL Draft coming up also. The whole city can kind of coordinate in real time and in a fast way to get that surplus food to where it needs to go. So, I think once we have that process down and making sure that people are comfortable with it, I'm happy to bring that to whoever wants to use it and, you know, help get the food to where it needs to go. Joe (29:29): I think you bring up, I mean that's the other thing, the Democratic National Convention was kind of the trial by fire, but Philadelphia is becoming known for pulling off these big events. Just in the past five years, the Pope came to town and everyone was fine. We thought it was going to completely decimate the city and everything was fine. The Democratic National Convention came to town. The NFL Draft is coming. We do Made in America every Labor Day weekend now. So, I think there's something fascinating too about the fact that you've built something that can scale up pretty massively to accommodate these huge events with lots of tourists and folks from out of town and it doesn't necessarily mean that you have to sustain that all the time. You can actually grow up to manage that and then take a little bit of a breather and then come back down to your regular steady state. To come back full circle and think again about the folks that are receiving the food, what's really the impact for families that are getting access to this kind of food on a more routine basis? What do you see the impact of that beyond just we fed somebody today? Megha (30:47): I think one thing that kind of sticks out in my mind as I was doing a delivery the other week and I was talking to one of the mothers that is at one of the shelters and she was telling me how she's started to give her daughter an allowance, so that she could go and buy healthy food, because she would make whatever is available. They would make frozen foods or frozen meals or whatever they kind of grew up eating and the daughter was getting really upset about not being able to eat healthier. So, they had to start budgeting for the daughter to go do her own grocery shopping, so she could buy some fresh produce or quinoa or whatever she's kind of researching. And I think for me that really struck a chord, because those were exactly the types of food that I was delivering to her. And I was kind of walking her through, oh yeah, this is quinoa and this really helps, you know, it has a lot of protein. So, just kind of walking her through some of the ingredients, she's like, oh, okay, I'm not really used to cooking with this or this is really cool that we're getting this. So, I think part of it is just, there's all this wonderful food in the city and fresh ingredients and some that are cooked and there's so much food around and there's so much abundance and it's just managing that a little bit more efficiently I think can really go a long way in getting fresh food to people. Joe (32:27): Tell our listeners how they can get involved if they want to help with vehicles, support, donations, how do they get to you? Megha (32:35): So you can go right to our website, www.foodconnectgroup.com and we also have a Facebook page, Food Connect PHL and we're also on Twitter, so that would probably be the best way to get in touch with us and if you are a donor, I really would encourage donors in the city to download our app. It's on Androids and iPhones and you can just go right to the app store, search 'Food Connect,' download it, and start scheduling pickups for your organization. Joe (33:07): Fantastic. Megha, thank you so much for informing us about what you're doing. Megha (33:11): Thank you so much for having me.