How One Woman Is Using Technology To End Hunger

Hunger isn't just a global problem — it's "the world's dumbest problem." At least, that's how Komal Ahmad, CEO and founder of Copia, sees it anyway, and she's making it her life's mission to eradicate hunger one city at a time with technology that seamlessly delivers food surplus from restaurants, grocery stores, parties, and events to people in need. Her platform, Copia, is what she calls the "Uber of food recovery," and has already helped to feed thousands of people in the San Francisco Bay area — it expects to feed a million more in this year alone.

Of course, there is nothing stupid about hunger. According to Feed America, in 2014 there were 48.1 million Americans living in "food insecure" households,15.3 million of which were children. But Ahmad, who has been focusing on streamlining ways to feed the hungry since she was a senior in college at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that for a problem that feels so overwhelming as hunger, the answer is simpler than we realize. "There's not a problem that is so grandiose in scale that has such an obvious solution as hunger does," the 26-year-old tells Bustle. "We've worked to eradicate polio and malaria and all of these things which require scientific innovation. This doesn't. This just requires better distribution. This is solvable, or will be in our lifetime. Or at least, I'm doing my darndest to make it so."

The inspiration to end hunger came when Ahmad was a senior in college. She had just returned from a summer at Naval training camp, when she came across a homeless man on the street — a fairly common sight in the Bay Area. Still, Ahmad was moved. "Something about him just compelled me to stop and invite him to join me for lunch," she says. As Ahmad watched the man wolf down his food in front of her, she listened to him tell his story. He had just returned from his second tour in Iraq, was still waiting for his benefits to kick in, and hadn't had anything to eat in three days. "I was sitting across from this vet who gave the most selfless sacrifice for the country, only to come home to this other struggle," Ahmad says. She realized she had to do something.

Ahmad's next move was to get in touch with the dining halls on campus to see about re-allocating leftover food to people in need. The school was willing to donate leftover meals to Ahmad, if she distributed them on her own. Ahmad happily agreed — only to find out that doing so wasn't quite so simple. Ahmad was in class when she first received a call from a campus dining hall manager. There were 500 sandwiches leftover from a campus event that were going to be discarded, unless Ahmad wanted them. Ahmad didn't even have a car — after all, she was a college student — so she rented one, loaded the perishable sandwiches into the vehicle with the air conditioning blasting, and then called up every food bank and non-profit she could think of to see who could use the extra food. Some agreed to take 10 sandwiches. Some said they didn't need any for the day. Many didn't even answer. Frustrated and parked on the side of the road, her car full of food no one wanted to take, Ahmad decided there had to be a better solution for distributing food. "It shouldn't be this hard to do the right thing, to do the good thing," she says.

Not too long later, Copia was born.

There's not a problem that is so grandiose in scale that has such an obvious solution as hunger does.

So how does Copia work, exactly? "We're meets Uber for food recovery," Ahmad explains. First, use Copia's app to identify yourself as a food donor, or a food recipient. Non-profits looking for food donations can register directly on Copia's website, and once verified can place a request for what types of food they are looking for, and how much. Copia food donors can be anyone — from restaurants, grocery stores, farms, and catering companies looking to get rid of surplus perishable items, to private parties that over-ordered food.

If you are a donor, simply express how much food you have left over, and request a pickup. Copia's algorithm will pair the donor with recipients currently looking for food donations. Then, a certified driver from Copia's delivery team will pick up the order, and distribute it to where it's most needed at the time. For instance, if a company has 2,000 pounds of food leftover after a conference, 500 pounds of that food might go to one food kitchen, while another 500 pounds might go to a women's shelter — and so on, until the food has been entirely divvied up. It's all about figuring out who has the capacity to accept what. "Whenever we have an incoming donation, we will match the amount and type of food to the non-profit that's open," Ahmad says.

If it seems simple, that's because it is. Since its start, Copia has recovered more than 830,000 pounds of food, feeding almost 700,000 people (for reference, that's more than the population of Luxembourg). During Super Bowl 50 alone, which took place in nearby Santa Clara, Ahmad and her team recovered 14 tons of food — enough to fill four 16-foot-long refrigerated trucks to the brim, and feed 23,000 people at non-profits and shelters all over the San Francisco Bay Area. "We were essentially able to, for the weekend, eliminate hunger for a lot of these non-profits," Ahmad says.

But Copia's potential to distribute food and other vital resources goes far beyond the Bay Area. During a talk at the 2016 Women In The World Summit in New York City, Ahmad told aKoma Media founder Zain Verjee and Margarette Purvis, president and CEO of Food Bank for New York City, that senior government officials from Germany and Austria reached out to say they were interested in bringing the platform overseas to Europe to help redistribute food to Syrian migrants who had entered their countries.

"Our piece of technology that we've built is so extraordinarily complex that it can also be applied to other situations," Ahmad told Verjee. "So, you could redistribute medicine, you could redistribute medical supplies, and so on." And, it's this type of opportunity for world-wide growth that Ahmad wishes for Copia. "If I was going to dedicate my life to something, it wouldn't be something small scale," she tells Bustle. "It would be something I want to grow globally."

It's a goal that doesn't seem too out of reach. This year, Ahmad was named one of Toyota's Mothers of Invention, a series that recognizes women whose innovations and entrepreneurial endeavors are making an impact on communities all over the globe. Ahmad received a $50,000 Toyota Driving Solutions grant to take her work to the next level. "They know my ambitions are much larger," Ahmad says. "It's given me the opportunity and platform and financial resources and support to grow [Copia] beyond the Bay Area. ... [It's] such an extraordinary honor that has given me a voice to share my message with the world."

If Ahmad's story proves anything, it's that to trust in our own crazy ideas is to make an impact. You might not initially have the resources or bodies needed to launch a project off the ground, but inspiration comes free — you just have to decide what to do with it.

As for other young women entrepreneurs who are looking to bring their ideas to life? Ahmad has a few words of advice. "Figure out what it is you want to do, surround yourself with the best and the brightest," she says. "People may think you're crazy, they might even discourage you, but if you know your truth, if you know what you're doing is the right thing to do, let that be your guiding light, and stop at absolutely nothing until you achieve what you want."

And, take it from Ahmad. You're not the only person who stands to benefit when you follow your dreams. There are thousands of people all over the globe whose lives might depend on it, too.

Images: Courtesy of Copia; Toyota/Women in the World