Ireland has recently seen a surge in the number of social enterprises, as budding entrepreneurs seek to use the latest innovations in internet and mobile technology to tackle society’s problems. This week, we focus on Foodcloud – one of the flagship social enterprises in Ireland.
Who are Foodcloud and what do they do?
Foodcloud is a non-profit social enterprise whose declared aim is to “connect businesses that have too much food with charities that have too little”. Foodcloud realise this link through their website and smartphone app. It is through these online portals that businesses (generally supermarkets, restaurants and coffee shops) can upload information about surplus food they have accumulated. Charities signed-up to the Foodcloud service then receive a text message informing them of the available food, and these charities can then decide whether or not to collect the food and donate it to people in need.
How Foodcloud differ from the food bank model of distribution is that the latter tend to source their food donations at the manufacturing or production stage (essentially, this is the “broken biscuits” factory model of redistributing surplus food). Conversely, Foodcloud receive their donations at the ‘retail stage’ of the food chain. This means Foodcloud are able to get larger – and fresher – donations of unwanted food from the major supermarket multiples.
The concept of Foodcloud was born when co-founders Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien were students at Trinity College Dublin. Ward was studying business and economics, O’Brien was studying environmental science, and the pair sought to pool their respective expertise to find a solution to the problem of food waste. The duo carried out extensive research on the issue by talking to businesses, charities, the Food Safety Authority and the Environmental Protection Agency, before launching the Foodcloud app in October 2013.
Fighting food waste
The current levels of waste in the food industry are deeply shocking: over 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted annually – a figure which represents a third of all food produced each year worldwide. In Ireland, the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that over a million tonnes of food are thrown away each year (a figure that equates to between €700 and €1,000 per family).
Meanwhile, millions around the world continue to suffer food deprivation, and 1 in 10 people in Ireland suffer from food poverty. Given the soaring numbers using food banks and similar services in the UK, it would appear that social enterprises such as Foodcloud could be pushing at an open door and are addressing an urgent need.
Much of the produce deemed by supermarkets to be ‘waste food’ is perfectly edible. It is food that supermarkets cannot sell due to over-ordering, short-dated produce, or a packaging issue (for example, an incorrectly printed label, or a package that lists a competition that has finished).
Nonetheless, Foodcloud have strict quality guidelines on the type of food they take from suppliers, stating on their website that they “only accept donations of edible, good quality, carefully packaged food that is maintained in accordance with the relevant food safety legislation”. They typically collect food types that are more likely to perish quickly (generally fruits and vegetables).
Foodcloud has had a major impact during the short time it has been running. Tesco Ireland have invested €250,000 in the venture, Foodcloud’s two founders were recently named Ireland’s leading social entrepreneurs by Ben & Jerry’s social enterprise programme, and they were even named in December 2014 as two of Time Magazine’s ‘Next Generation Leaders’.
But, the initiative has had an even more tangible impact on food poverty. By working with suppliers like Tesco Ireland and over 250 Irish charities, Foodcloud has helped deliver over 230 tonnes of food – or over 500,000 meals – to people in need across Ireland.
The right way to fight food poverty?
The use of food banks as a long-term method of poverty alleviation is not without its critics. The question remains whether it is morally right for huge swathes of the population to be reliant on waste food so that they can meet a basic level of subsistence. Professor Martin Caraher, head of food and health policy at the City University of London, has described the widespread use of food banks in the UK as “a blot on the social landscape”, and more an indictment of society than an indication of its generosity. Directing the food that supermarkets have no need for to service the needs of the poor is something Professor Caraher views as using “one fault in the food supply chain to solve another fault (i.e. people’s food poverty)”.
The counter-argument to these criticisms is that some level of surplus, unwanted food is almost inevitable given how major supermarkets operate. And what is the better use of this food: destroying it or throwing it away, or donating it to charity? Companies like Foodcloud provide an incentive to the supermarkets to redistribute surplus food instead of dumping it. Whereas networks of food banks and initiatives like Foodcloud may not be able to tackle the root causes of food poverty, they can at least mitigate its effects, while also reducing the levels of waste and inefficiency in the food industry.
The Foodcloud model is already being replicated by other initiatives across Ireland. 2014 saw the launch of the Bia Food Initiative – a non-profit organisation backed by the Irish Government – that perform a similar function to Foodcloud by collecting leftover food from supermarkets and producers for redistribution to charities in the Munster region.
For Foodcloud themselves, the success of their initiative in Ireland has brought them to the attention of International food banks that are eager to scale Ward and O’Brien’s model of sourcing food waste from retail outlets.
Unquestionably one of the most successful social enterprises that has emerged in Ireland, Foodcloud are a shining exemplar of how non-profit organisations can develop a technological solution to alleviate a societal problem.