A New Answer to the ‘Paper or Plastic’ Question

“You can’t just throw it into the trash!”
Eight years ago, that’s how Daphna Nissenbaum’s arguments with her teenage son began. He’d finish a water bottle, then absentmindedly toss it into the garbage. The scoldings she gave him for not recycling made the Israeli mother of five think about what else was being thrown away.
“I realized plastic bottles weren’t the main issue,” Nissenbaum says.
After all, they could be recycled, when people remembered to do so. But what about all the flexible packaging — chip bags, candy wrappers and go-to containers — Nissenbaum also saw crammed into the trash?
She did some research. What she found shocked her: Most flexible packaging isn’t recycled and ends up in landfills, oceans or other places.
Unless an alternative could be found, “our children will find themselves facing mountains of plastic,” says Nissenbaum. She thought of an orange peel or apple. Once discarded, it disintegrates biologically and turns to compost. Why couldn’t packaging be engineered to do the same?
Most people would consider that a rhetorical question. Nissenbaum made it a personal challenge.
Before earning an M.B.A. in marketing and entrepreneurship, Nissenbaum graduated from the Israeli Army’s elite software engineering program. “Part of our education was thinking out of the box,” she explains. “We were trained to create something from nothing.”
In the basement of her home, Daphna began the Tipa Corporation. Funds raised from friends and family allowed her to hire bioplastic experts. Their job: to source flexible packaging materials that are biodegradable.
Nothing existed. Instead, Tipa had to develop its own. What it came up with looks like plastic. It acts like plastic. Yet when composted, the material naturally breaks down in 180 days or less.
“Plastic that turns into compost,” says Nissenbaum. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Yet her extensive business and management background said that wasn’t enough to be successful. “If we want the mass market to cooperate and adopt compostable solutions, we have to make it easy to do,” she says.
For instance, Nissenbaum’s team engineered their patented bioplastic to meet manufacturers’ requirements and to adapt to production practices already in place. That way, there’s no need for companies to invest in new equipment.
Today, Tipa makes zippered bags, stand-up pouches and packaging for coffee, snacks and produce. Clients range from a London-based fruit-jerky company to fashion designer Stella McCartney, who’s replacing all her plastic packaging with Tipa products and recruited the company to make invitations for her 2018 runway show in Paris. Individual products like compostable sandwich bags and biodegradable garbage bags are also sold online through eco-conscious retailers like Reuseit.com.
No longer headquartered in Nissenbaum’s basement, Tipa’s 25 employees have offices in the U.S., U.K. and Israel.
Coming up with a solution to landfill waste that the world will want to adopt has been a challenge, Nissenbaum admits, but she believes compostable plastics are the answer. So do her kids. Nissenbaum has even visited their schools to share Tipa’s mission. “They’re very proud,” she says.

The Hero of Kansas City

Robert Frazier was incarcerated at age 22 for selling crack cocaine. Years later, Anton’s Taproom gave him a second chance.
Frazier now works as a dishwasher at the local Kansas City, Mo., steakhouse and butcher shop. He calls his boss, Anton Kotar, a hero.
“I’ve got family who won’t do what he did for me,” says Frazier.
Since opening his farm-to-table restaurant in 2012, Kotar has employed approximately 23 former inmates, but his service to others doesn’t stop there.
Watch the video above to see additional ways that Kotar invests in his community.

In Atlanta, This Group Fights Hunger With Tech and Found Fruit

Off the Atlanta BeltLine, about 20 feet from the Freedom Parkway bridge, as teenagers skateboarded, joggers pushed strollers and couples walked hand-in-hand, Logan Pool looks up.
“Do you think this tree can hold my weight?” he asks Katherine Kennedy, executive director of Concrete Jungle, the nonprofit that organized the day’s fruit pick.
Kennedy chuckles. “I’ll let you make that call,” she says.
The branches above him hang heavy with reddening plums the size of golfballs. Farther up the hill, six volunteers pull plums from other trees, filling quart-sized containers with the sticky-sweet fruit.
Concrete Jungle aims to address two connected issues. On the one hand, thousands of fruit trees grow unattended — their ripened fruits drop and rot, contributing to the 40 percent of agricultural products in the U.S. that go to waste, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And alongside that food waste, people are going hungry. In Atlanta 19 percent of adults and 28 percent of kids are food insecure — a phrase that, in practical terms, means skipping one meal a day based on necessity. Although food pantries and soup kitchens alleviate some of that need, it’s often with donated pantry staples and processed foods, rather than fresh, vitamin- and mineral-rich ones.
Since 2009, the organization has mapped 4,700 neglected trees to create Atlanta’s only fruit-tree map. It’s allowed the small group — which has just one employee and 10 board members — and their volunteers to maximize the harvest and minimize wasted fruit. To date, more than 33,000 pounds of produce have been donated to those in need.
For most of the 10 hunger-relief organizations that partner with Concrete Jungle, this is the only fresh produce they can provide to the families they serve. Subsequently, in places where Concrete Jungle drops off contributions, the fresh produce is used immediately, whether it’s set out for people to grab or set aside for volunteers to prepare as part of a meal.
“Concrete Jungle was the first and remains the most consistent donor of fresh-picked and farm-grown fruits and vegetables for our community,” Chad Hyatt, pastor at Atlanta’s Mercy Community Church, says. “Getting food donations isn’t hard; getting healthy, nutritious, fresh food is.”

Growing Roots

Concrete Jungle started with two friends and some apples. Craig Durkin and Aubrey Daniels had a cider press but, as broke students at the Georgia Institute of Technology, they didn’t have the money for the abundance of fruit required to use it. So they scouted out apple trees in the area and started picking. Before long, they realized the scope of the fruit available in Atlanta — a metro area with so much lush green space it’s widely known as “the city in the forest.”
Sometimes referred to as “gleaning,” this age-old practice gathers whatever crops remain on a farmer’s land after it was harvested. And Concrete Jungle isn’t alone in gleaning food donations. “Urban fruit foraging” organizations — a more modern term for the practice — have popped up in cities such as Seattle; Louisville, Ky.; Philadelphia; Boulder, Colo.; and Los Angeles.
For volunteers, these organizations provide a novel experience that harkens back to childhood tree-climbing or family trips to orchards. “They can now see Atlanta in a new light,” Kennedy says. “They can see fruit trees all over the place.”
That was one of the main draws for Erin Croom, who came out to the plum pick with her two sons, five-year-old Thomas and four-year-old Henry.
“I love showing them that there is magic in ordinary and familiar spaces,” says Croom. “They are so proud to gain new knowledge — like being able to identify new trees — and do something that helps others.”
Back by the parkway bridge, Pool has successfully climbed the plum tree and is diligently harvesting from halfway up its branches, although a few plums have ended up in his mouth.
“I’m only eating the bruised ones!” he calls down, laughing.

A Better Bounty

Beyond a growing volunteer base, Concrete Jungle has technology on its side. Because it’s difficult to keep an eye on the thousands of trees the group has mapped all across Atlanta, they’ve partnered with the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Public Design Workshop to better monitor their potential crops.
First, to reduce the amount of time spent driving to a picking site, the team deployed drones to take photos and videos of the trees. (The drone is currently grounded due to FAA regulations and licensing requirements.) Now they’re creating sensors that will be directly placed in trees to monitor fruit growth. Cameras take weekly pictures of tree branches, and a bend sensor measures a branch’s angle (as fruit grows bigger and heavier, it weighs the branch down). And an electronic nose, still very much in the development phase, aims to “smell” gases as they’re released from growing fruit. Once the gases reach a certain level, the fruit is ready to pick.
Last year Concrete Jungle donated 16,000 pounds of produce, a harvest record they’re hoping to double this year.
On this afternoon, eight volunteers collect 98 pounds of plums, some of which end up at Mercy Community Church, hand-delivered, like most donations, by Kennedy.
A group of predominantly homeless men is gathered for breakfast and prayer. Pastor Hyatt loads some of the plums into a bowl and passes it around. “Concrete Jungle is an example of fundamental justice,” he says, “of seeing a resource and a need and doing the right thing by rolling up your sleeves and dirtying your hands to get the resource to those who need it.”
Correction: This article originally referred to Atlanta’s BeltLine as the Beltway. NationSwell regrets the error.
MORE: Can This Ambitious Plan Both Preserve History and Revitalize a City?

Fighting Food Waste, One Sector at a Time

America is one of the largest offenders of food waste in the world, according to a recent survey. Every year, roughly 1.3 billion tons of food is thrown out worldwide, a considerable problem given that agriculture contributes about 22 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions and 12.7 million people go hungry in America alone. Entrepreneurs across several sectors have created ways to repurpose food. Their efforts are admirable and economical, but the biggest difference will be if you make food waste reduction a daily habit.

Recovered food from the University of Denver Food Recovery Network chapter.

On College Campuses

On average, a student who lives in university housing throws out 141 pounds of food per year. Multiply that by the number of residential colleges around the country, and it becomes a huge problem, says Regina Northouse, executive director for the Food Recovery Network, the only nonprofit dealing specifically with campus food waste.
WATCH: How Much Food Could Be Rescued If College Dining Halls Saved Their Leftovers?
Northouse’s group reduces waste by enlisting the help of student volunteers at 226 universities. This manpower shuttles still-edible food from dining halls that would otherwise be thrown out to local nonprofits fighting hunger. Northouse estimates that since 2011, Food Recovery Network has fed 150,000 food-insecure people.

Through the box-subscription company Hungry Harvest, farmers sell “ugly food” to consumers instead of tossing the unsightly produce out.

On Farms

If a carrot isn’t quite orange enough, odds are it’ll be tossed. Blemishes and unattractive produce make up nearly 40 percent of discarded food, according to a 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Though some unused fruits and veggies can be sent to food manufacturers, farmers lose profits from about a quarter of their crops because of cosmetic imperfections. To put money back into their pockets, box subscriptions services, such as Hungry Harvest, have found their way into the ugly food market.
“We started out with 10 customers at a stand,” says Stacy Carroll, director of partnerships for Hungry Harvest. “We now have thousands of customers every week buying thousands of pounds of food that would, in the past, have been thrown away.”
Roughly 10,000 subscribers along the East Coast receive weekly boxes of recovered produce from the Baltimore-based company (which was started by the founders of Food Recovery Network). In addition, food insecure families who use SNAP benefits can purchase boxes at 10 Hungry Harvest sites. All in all, the organization redistributes between 60,000 and 80,000 pounds of food through its subscription service each week.

MealConnect provides a platform for retailers to redistribute unsold produce to those in need.

At Food Retailers

For merchants, food wasted is also money wasted. Across the U.S., the cost of tossing food runs upward of $165 billion annually.
MealConnect, a tech platform launched in April by Feeding America (a nationwide network of food banks), allows retailers to post surplus meals and unused produce on its app, which then notifies local food banks workers to pick it up and redistribute it to those in need. The company has recovered 333 million pounds of food by working with large retailers like Walmart and Starbucks. MealConnect also allows merchants to recoup some of their outlays (via tax deductions).

Chef Dan Barber’s wastED pop-ups challenged chefs to create innovate dishes using produce that otherwise would have been thrown out.

In Restaurants

In 2015, the aptly named food popup wastED found itself in the heart of a media frenzy because of what was on the menu: trashed food. 
Since then, a handful of other restaurants in urban areas across the world have used recovered produce in their meals.
“We’re offering our cooks the opportunity to be creative and come up with menus instead,” says Brooklyn, N.Y., chef Przemek Adolf, owner of Saucy By Nature, which uses leftovers from previous catering events to create daily lunch and dinner specials.

The USDA’s FoodKeeper app educates consumers on how to extend the shelf life of stored foods.

In Your Own Kitchen

Individual families throw away nearly $1,600 worth of food per year, according to the EPA, which has spurred the federal government to step in and help.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture created the app FoodKeeper, which informs consumers on how long an apple can last in the fridge, for example, and proper food storage techniques to extend shelf life. It also sends out reminder alerts to use up food that’s in danger of spoiling. The desired outcome? People changing their behaviors, ultimately buying less and consuming what they do purchase.

The Surprising Story Behind One School’s Healthy Lunch Program, The Best Way to Reach Your Reps and More

Revenge of the Lunch Lady, The Huffington Post Highline
In a country where cheap mass-produced food is king and pizza counts as a vegetable, healthy lunches for kids can be hard to come by. But a recent revamp of school fare in Huntington, W.V., previously designated as the nation’s unhealthiest city, provides a hopeful model. There, an enterprising employee managed to implement a healthy lunch program, starring locally grown produce, while maintaining the district’s minuscule $1.50-per-meal budget.
Getting a Busy Signal When You Call Congress? Here’s How to Get Through, The Christian Science Monitor
Since President Trump’s inauguration last month, there’s been a surge in citizens reaching out to Congress, but not all forms of communication are equally effective. If you really want your voice heard, say experts, try meeting with your representative in person, writing a personal letter and focusing on policy rather than cabinet picks.
The Compost King of New York, The New York Times
New York City alone generates 1 million tons of organic waste per year, but a new plant on Long Island will process this waste into both fertilizer and clean energy, generating significant returns. This new large-scale industrial waste processing is both more environmentally friendly and more profitable than traditional composting, and could revolutionize American energy.
Continue reading “The Surprising Story Behind One School’s Healthy Lunch Program, The Best Way to Reach Your Reps and More”

This Chef Has Been Putting Food Sustainability on the Table for Decades

Back in 2007, there were only two farmers’ markets in the country that offered a special deal for poor families: one in New York City and another in Columbia Heights, Md. That’s before Michel Nischan, a James Beard Award-winning chef long associated with the sustainable food movement, got involved. His grassroots organization, the nonprofit Wholesome Wave, helped persuade Congress to provide low-income families with extra bucks if they bought healthy, local fare. NationSwell spoke to Nischan by phone about his efforts to end food insecurity.
Wholesome Wave aspires to make healthy, local food more affordable to low-income shoppers. How have you accomplished that goal?
The target of our activity is federal dollars. The average person’s benefit through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) is about $4.20 a day — and that’s to spend on breakfast, lunch and dinner. When that’s all you have to spend on food, you’re really forced to make choices that you might not want to make.
The 2014 Farm Bill included the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, with $100 million dollars in federal funding that has to be matched in full from the private sector to double SNAP dollars spent on fruits and vegetables. We wanted to level the playing field between healthy food and artificially inexpensive foods, like instant rice and noodles or snack chips, which are cheaper because of agriculture policies, tax breaks for large manufacturing facilities and transportation subsidies that scaled system enjoys. We raised private money to double SNAP and started with fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets. The message to the consumer was “Spend your SNAP on anything you want, but if you come over here [to the farmers’ market], you double your money.”
Why do fruits and vegetables often cost more than less healthy foods?
The major reason some foods are so incredibly inexpensive is the public support for soy, corn, rice and wheat. Cereal companies often pay a price that is below the cost of production. After world wars I and II, these crops were favored as the future, and we produced a lot of them, because whichever country or ally bloc had the most food for its marching armies would be the one to win a war. When we learned how to process food to make it last 10 years, how to make it lighter so it’s cheaper to transport, how to put nitrogen and phosphorous and potassium in the ground so things would miraculously grow, we felt secure. And we also thought we could end starvation and feed the world. In that compelling moment, it was really easy to get the American public and Congress on board. It wasn’t to give one sector an unfair advantage, but those systems are still in place. It’s kind of a false economy; it’s not a true free market. [The question now is], how do we create a case to shift all of that public money that goes to funding these artificially inexpensive foods, which we now know are not good for us and the environment, to the types of foods that are good?
What has building this grassroots organization taught you about leadership?
We need people to understand what they can align on. What I’ve learned over the years — and I think this is endemic in our society — is that we only want to work with people who think just like we do. Whether it’s in business or nonprofits, you’d much prefer working with someone who shares your core values. People ask us, “Is Wholesome Wave anti-GMO?” Why are you asking us that question? We’re about affordable access. Let’s align on that. If the thing you deeply, personally believe in is migrant farm-worker rights, equitable access to land or a ban on GMOs, work on those things. But there are other ways, while we’re doing our work, to come together on food justice.
What can the rest of us do to help further this movement?
I think food is one of the most powerful lenses to evaluate the quality of a lawmaker when we’re going to the polls. What’s their stance on abortion or marriage equality? All of those are important things and informed by deeply held religious beliefs. But if you’re going to take a meal a day off the table of a child by eliminating nutrition in schools, or you say that you don’t see the point of paying for healthcare in schools, you’re probably a jerk. How they vote on food and hunger is a great lens into their soul. Personally, I want an honorable, good person in office making decisions on my behalf. When you show up to vote, make sure you know what these folks do with food votes. You can go on Food Policy Action, put in your zip code and get a score for your representatives based on how they vote on food issues.
What books would you recommend to read up on the current system?
I’d recommend Michael Pollan’s “Botany of Desire,” Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America,” Mas Masumoto’s “Wisdom of the Last Farmer,” and “Fair Food” by Oran B. Hesterman. Still, none of those really touches on the potential power of changing the decision you make at the grocery store. Food has the amazing potential to fix human health, the environment, our economy and our society, and people need to be inspired.
What other innovations are you excited about right now?
With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, we see an opportunity in the way Medicare and Medicaid dollars are spent, now that we’re shifting to more of a prevention culture rather than a fee-for-service model. We could potentially see billions of dollars put toward creating a fruit-and-vegetable prescription program. [In 2011, Wholesome Wave launched the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program to encourage healthcare providers to prescribe fresh produce to patients.] Doctors, nutritionists and nurse practitioners can work together to diagnose an at-risk patient, work to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables, and then measure that for health outcomes.
It’s actually less expensive to feed a family of four fruits and vegetables for 20 years than it is to have one person go on dialysis for four years. Dialysis from diabetes and kidney failure is the most expensive line-item in Medicare and Medicaid. And if we could get certain healthy food item SKUs coded as reimbursable for prevention, that would unlock billions of dollars and affordability for the country’s 66 million food-insecure people who are having difficulty making the lifestyle changes to prevent diseases that cost us over half a trillion dollars a year.

This Filmmaker Uses Her Lens to Put the Focus on Social Issues

In the 2001 documentary film “LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton,” Laura Lee, a 62-year-old woman in the impoverished Mississippi Delta, struggles to take care of her 10 children, 38 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. We catch a glimpse of how the education system and the criminal justice system have both failed the family, a century and a half after slavery was abolished. Yet the movie stays grounded in one woman’s experience, providing a human view of large institutions. NationSwell Council member Xan Parker, who was an associate producer on the Academy Award–nominated film and has also helped spotlight the problem of hunger in America as a consulting producer on 2012’s “A Place at the Table,” spoke with us about unearthing the stories that resonate with viewers long after the credits roll.
How did you get interested in filmmaking?
I grew up without a television, but my parents took my sisters and me out to see a lot of independent films and documentaries. If there was something good playing in New York, my mother would sometimes drive us up from our home in Baltimore for the day. In college, I was introduced to cinema verité by an experimental filmmaker who taught contemporary art history. The films that really piqued my interest were the Maysles’s films: “Salesman,” “Gimme Shelter,”  “Grey Gardens,” the films about [environmental artists] Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude. I quickly realized that, although I was an English major, storytelling in film was a more natural fit for me than writing.
What attracted you to documentaries specifically?
All cinema is like magic to me. You’re transported and taken on a journey. You feel really close to characters that you never would have met in normal life. I remember seeing “Brother’s Keeper” in a movie theater in Baltimore right after I graduated from college and thinking, “How did they do that?” It seemed impossible what the directors, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, were doing — this idea that you could take real life and present it as a feature narrative film, that it would function in scenes, cut back and forth for reaction shots, and pass over so much time. But the world does not function like it does in a film. That amazed me and intrigued me. Driven by my curiosity and my empathy, I let those guide me.
Where did you learn your approach to filmmaking?
When I came to New York City after college, I headed for the Maysles Films studio on West 54th Street, like so many aspiring documentary filmmakers before me had done. That was my film school, really. The filmmakers who were there in the 1990s taught me most of what I know. That’s when the richness and immediacy of film really captivated me, with its ability to deliver the most authentic, immediate experience of the human condition.
The Maysles were famous for their fly-on-the-wall method. I’ve heard their approach described as getting to know one’s neighbors. How would you define it?
I love getting to know people and getting to experience a bit of their lives. Albert Maysles told me that he and his brother David just wanted to show the dignity of the working man when they made “Salesman,” a seminal film in direct cinema. They really looked up to their father, who had been a postman, and they wanted to show how his life and his work had dignity. Even the vocation that some people might cast aspersions on — that ironic career of selling the Bible —included people whose lives deserve consideration. And that has always stayed in my mind when I am filming people: “This person has dignity. This person is entrusting me and my crew with that. And we are going to do right by them.”
What has your production work taught you about what defines leadership?
I believe strongly that filmmaking is a team sport. I learned from my mentor, the director Susan Froemke, to listen to everyone around you, to hear what they have to say about the story. The more you do that — and the more everyone on the team feels responsible for the final film — the stronger it’s going to be.
Journalists are sometimes accused of fitting stories into a preconceived notion. How do you avoid that as a documentarian?
You want to tell the truth, of course. You don’t want people to lie to you. But documentary is different from journalism. In a documentary film, the truth you are telling can be the fact of someone’s emotional state, or the truth of someone’s character. You are chronicling both what happened and what it felt like. I’m less interested in making documentaries that feel like lectures, that try to teach you too much. I want to follow a journey that’s happening or get to know the characters in front of me.
How do you choose what stories to tell? In other words, what narrative qualities do you like to see before you sign on to a project?
A compelling, inviting, magnetic character is the heart of every good documentary. If you have someone who speaks with a bit of poetry, you’re in good hands. And I learned a long time ago from the Maysles brothers’ filmmaking team that you are indeed in someone else’s hands when you are making a verité documentary.
As for subjects, I do have a certain attraction to stories about work — what people do, why they do it, what its greater meaning is. Producing Ivy Meeropol’s nonfiction series “The Hill” was a chance to give audiences a peek into the under-the-radar, but very high stakes, work of the passionate young legislative aides on Capitol Hill.
Tough one: What are your favorite movies?
The documentaries I love are the ones that got into my soul: “Chronicle of a Summer,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Salesman,” “Hoop Dreams,” “Grizzly Man,” “Manda Bala,” “Harlan County, USA,” “Brother’s Keeper,” “Two Towns of Jasper,” “Fog of War,” “Bowling for Columbine.” Every single one of them has some indelible moment that will never leave me. If I can pick one I worked on: “LaLee’s Kin.” And right now two films that I am thinking about a lot are Kirsten Johnson’s touching and personal “Cameraperson,” as well as the incredibly timely “13th” by Ava DuVernay.
How do you create those indelible moments?
Trust in providence. It’s something that comes and goes, but when making a film, life provides. David Maysles said frequently, “Don’t worry if you didn’t catch that key moment on camera. Just wait and it will happen again. Or something like it will.” It’s the incredible thing about documentary film: You never get writer’s block.
What are you most proud of having accomplished?
There are so many points of manipulation in film. You choose the story you want to tell, then you “cast” by choosing who’s going to be at the heart of that story. You choose when you’re going to film them and what questions you’re going to ask, then you choose what footage you’re going to use and evoke a mood through editing, music or graphics. Hands down, the greatest moment in making a film is when you show it to the subject and they say, “That’s it. You got it. You got everything right.”

Raj Karmani of Zero Percent

It started with a simple question. As a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2012, Raj Karmani, the founder of Zero Percent, was a regular at a neighborhood bakery. The store was always fully stocked with more than a dozen different bagel flavors, and that got Karmani thinking. “I wondered, ‘When all those beautiful bagels are made fresh each day, what happens to the ones that don’t sell?’” So Karmani asked the bakery’s owner, and learned that he did his best to donate what he could to area nonprofits. Still, many of those bagels were thrown out at closing time. Karmani vowed to change that.
Then a computer science student, Karmani first built the app that would become Zero Percent during a hackathon. “Technology is going to be the core of this solution,” he says. Zero Percent’s app allows restaurants, schools and other institutions that sign on to easily note what kinds of food they have available and in what quantity, and when they would like to have it picked up. The system then notifies a local nonprofit, giving them the option to pick up the food. In Chicago, where the startup is based, Zero Percent also hires drivers to make daily, pre-scheduled pickup and drop-off runs.
That a city like Chicago would have such a need for surplus food initially surprised Karmani, who grew up in Pakistan. “Coming to the United States, I felt I came to a country that is the richest and most powerful country in the world, and that I had left poverty and hunger behind,” he says. But his conversation with the bakery owner opened his eyes to two huge problems in the U.S.: the dual issues of hunger and food waste. “Forty percent of the food produced in the United States goes to waste,” Karmani says. That translates to more than $22 billion worth of prepared and perishable food every year. “That’s why we named the company Zero Percent,” he explains. “We wanted to bring that statistic down to zero percent.”

Join the cause! Commit to reducing food waste in your community. See how to donate unspoiled food here.

Restaurants and other businesses pay a fee to participate in the program. In return, Zero Percent streamlines the process of donating excess food. “It’s just a great way to know that we’re feeding others who need it,” says Jon Naylor, a managing partner at Blackwood BBQ in Chicago. It’s a morale-booster for staff, and they mention it during interviews with new potential hires, Naylor says. Customers also like to hear that the restaurant is giving back to the community, he adds.
The participating institutions can also gain financial benefits. Zero Percent’s functionality includes a dashboard that shows them exactly what they’ve donated and where their donations have gone. This makes it easy for them to document donations for tax purposes. It also helps them track how much excess food they’re ordering and making, so they can make their operations more efficient. “We had a lot of lettuce leftover at the beginning,” says Timothy Muellemann, a manager at Sopraffina in Chicago. “Since we began using Zero Percent, we’ve been able to see the items that we had been ordering too much of, and it’s helped us keep that in check,” he says.
The benefits for local nonprofits are obvious — fresh, healthy, prepared food they can serve to those who need it most. Besides going to soup kitchens and food pantries, Zero Percent provides surplus food to after-school programs and organizations that serve underprivileged populations. “What’s amazing is that we get so much fresh, nutritious food from Zero Percent,” says Kylon Hooks, a program manager at Chicago’s Broadway Youth Center, which primarily serves homeless LGBTQ youth. Hooks says that getting healthy food from a high-quality source has an emotional benefit too. “It gets young people to think, ‘I’m worth eating this way,’” he says. “Zero Percent is an invaluable resource.”
Since its launch in 2013, Zero Percent has distributed more than 1 million meals to almost 150 nonprofits in the Chicago area. But Karmani has his sights set on bigger goals. “I firmly believe that food waste can be entirely eliminated,” he says. “I’m still striving to reach that utopia of zero food waste. I’m not going to congratulate myself until we have, step by step, shown that we can move the needle on food waste, first in Chicago, and then elsewhere.”


The 2016 AllStars program is produced in partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal and celebrates social entrepreneurs who are powering solutions with innovative technology. Visit NationSwell.com/AllStars from November 1 to 15 to vote for your favorite AllStar. The winner will receive the AllStar Award, a $10,000 grant to help further his or her work advocating for change.

Can Food Change People’s Opinion of the Refugee Crisis?

Disappointed by the selection of hummus sold in supermarkets, Manal Kahi, a native of Lebanon, started making her own, using her grandmother’s recipe. Then, during the height of the 2015 refugee crisis, a light bulb went off in Kahi’s head: What if refugees could share their local cuisines and earn a living by doing so?
Last November, Kahi and her brother launched Eat Offbeat. Watch the video above to see how this ethnic food delivery company hires refugees from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and Nepal who are talented home cooks and trains them to be professional chefs. 
MORE: Would Your Opinions of Criminals Change If One Cooked and Served You Dinner?

Giving Mickey Mouse an Energy Boost Helps the Environment, How One Neighborhood Transformed Itself from the Country’s Worst and More

Want Power? Fire Up the Tomatoes and Potatoes, National Geographic
In Florida, scientists discovered that the tomato can be transformed from a lycopene storehouse into an electrical powerhouse. Considering that the annual surplus in South Florida could power Disney World for three months, is a new type of utility — one that’s fueled by food waste — in the state’s future?
How Cincinnati Salvaged the Nation’s Most Dangerous Neighborhood, Politico
Simply put, in 2009, Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood was the nation’s worst. When city government couldn’t provide a lifeline to the downtrodden area, a nonprofit private development company stepped in. Now, in just seven short years, the community is experiencing a blossoming transformation.
New California Law Could Keep Guns Away from People Like Omar Mateen, Reveal
After a mass shooting tragedy in 2014, the Golden State proved that it’s possible to pass sensible gun legislation. Its gun violence restraining order can prevent someone from purchasing or possessing a firearm for 21 days if law enforcement or a family member is worried they’ll turn violent.
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