Founders of FoodCloud have broken new ground in the redistribution of surplus food
A third of all human food produced in the world goes to waste. Its redistribution to charities seems a logical response
Aoibheann O’Brien and Iseult Ward, co-founders of FoodCloud, a company trying to minimise food waste by supermarkets and other retailers. Aoibheann is pictured with a donation basket from Tesco in Ringsend, Dublin, while Iseult displays the company’s phone app. photograph: dave meehan
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, world food production will need to increase by 60 per cent in the coming decades if it is to cope with an expanding global population which by 2050 is estimated to surpass nine billion.
Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien, a pair of young Irish entrepreneurs, find this frustrating. That’s because already a third of all food produced globally for human consumption goes to waste. In Europe alone we waste 90 million tonnes of food a year.
The two women believe the redistribution of surplus food can go some way to tackling the issue.
The problem with Ireland is it is very poorly served by food banks (large depots that store surplus food for redistribution). For years the country has only had one, and a relatively small one at that, operated by Crosscare in Dublin, although efforts are under way to set up a national network of food banks (more of which later).
So Ward and O’Brien, who met at Trinity College Dublin, looked at other ways to get food that would otherwise be discarded into the hands of the people who need it, i.e. the one in 10 people in Ireland who suffer from food poverty.
The pair estimates Irish retailers produce about 87,000 tonnes of surplus food a year, most of which is dumped at a cost of €8.5 million. In the absence of any redistribution infrastructure they set up FoodCloud, a company that uses technology to link retailers holding excess food with charities.
“We have a smartphone app and a website that allows businesses to put up details of what’s left at the end of the day and the time for collection,” says Ward. The app then generates a text message which it sends to local charities.
“The charities have their own profile and they can choose what type of food they want and what times they want to collect it at. Then the system chooses the most appropriate charity or charities.”
At the moment 35 charities have registered with the company, most of them small operations such as youth and homeless organisations in and around Dublin city centre. FoodCloud’s revenue model involves charging retailers an annual subscription fee which works out cheaper than the cost of dumping excess food.
The company has been on the go since last summer, and has already attracted significant interest from retailers. And well they might. In 2010 the introduction of stringent food waste management regulations put an end to landfill dumping of large amounts of biodegradable material. As a result retailers had to start working with specialist companies to get rid of their waste, which saw a knock-on increase in costs.
Yet businesses that work with FoodCloud say the moral argument is more compelling.
“The cost isn’t incredibly high…we’re not going to save millions and millions but it does mean we can help charities with their need for food.”
The FoodCloud model works particularly well in smaller stores, Mahon says. “You have an express store on Talbot Street and they might not have a massive volume of waste…but because of where that store is there could be up to 10 charities around it that could really benefit.”
There are also moves afoot to establish a food distribution network on a much larger scale. The Bia Food Bank is a pilot project in Cork: a 10,000sq ft food redistribution hub in which it is already moving food with the St Vincent de Paul.
Eoin MacCuirc, its director (he’s also chair of the board of directors at FoodCloud), outlines the costs involved. It is about €200,000 to set up a depot and that is before staff and infrastructure are taken into account. “It’s a big operation,” he says. “And then you really need a network.”
Bia Food Bank is keen to establish hubs in Dublin and Galway in the coming years because if, say, Kerry Group gives it 1,000kg of cheese it cannot shift that amount solely in Cork. “You need the infrastructure in Dublin and Galway to move that around, and that’s why we’re in partnership with Vincent de Paul because it is in every parish in the country. So the model of the food bank is not that we’re taking the food and then delivering it. We give it to the charities who know where the need is.”
After start-up costs are taken care of, MacCuirc estimates running costs amount to between €100,000-€150,000 a year. He envisions contributions from larger charities who already spend millions of euro a year on food, as well as fees from the food producers and retailers. “It’s not expensive,” he says. Other European countries have hundreds of food banks, and MacCuirc believes Ireland will have a lot more in a few years’ time.
FoodCloud also plans to expand. It hopes to go nationwide and is also eyeing up Belfast and the UK. “I think we’ll really benefit for scale in terms of financial sustainability,” says Ward. “Our aim is for an Ireland where no food goes to waste.”