Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Dine Out, Feed the Hungry

April 25, 2016
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Dine Out, Feed the Hungry
Spare, a mobile app, allows diners to automatically round up their restaurant bill and donate extra change to one of the city’s major food banks.
The app Spare enables restaurant goers to make an effortless donation to a food bank.

In New York City, nearly 235 million meals are missed every year due to poverty, but one former bartender in the Bronx has a technological solution to end that.

Spare, a mobile app launched last September, allows diners to automatically round up their restaurant bill and donate extra change to one of the city’s major food banks. Developed by Andra Tomsa, a onetime cocktail waitress and financial advisor, the app has 7,000 users who are each donating an average of $15 a month through their small change. While the user base is still small, Tomsa is aggressively pursuing partnerships with restaurants to offer loyalty coupons (think: a free drink for every third donation) to get to 400,000 users — the magic number she believes can end the meal gap in the Big Apple.

“The overwhelming majority [of those who are food insecure] are working poor. They have two to three jobs, trying to support their families, the elderly and their children on a minimum wage,” Tomsa explains. “The last week of the month, they are choosing between the electricity bill and groceries. They are going to the food pantry to supplement their budget.”

As a student at Fordham University in the Bronx, Tomsa studied the “extreme poverty” of the developing world, but only later did she realize some of those living on less than $2 a day included her neighbors in New York’s poorest borough. In December 2012, she decided to focus her attention on her immediate surroundings, including the area around Yankee Stadium where she lives. Knowing “even millennials who have no money, have money to buy beer,” she started with an analog version of Spare, by collecting dollars at six bars through an extra line on the bill (in addition to tips). But with a newborn son, collecting cash from these nightlife establishments posed logistical problems.

In November 2013, on a date nonprofit workers now call the “Hunger Cliff” because federal budget cuts to food stamps resulted in more than 1 million New York City residents having less to spend at supermarkets, Tomsa’s project took on new urgency. She decided to scale her idea by going virtual. Developing an API (a for-profit venture that her nonprofit Spare leases for a small fee) that tallies donations based on a bank statement, Tomsa was able to automate the collection process.

For those who have money to spare on restaurants, the least they can do is remember those who can’t afford dinner that night.

Homepage photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

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