Hannah Dehradunwala moved with her family from New Jersey to Pakistan when she was 11. “Almost nothing here goes to waste,” she thought.
At her grandmother’s house in Karachi, every item had an alternate purpose. Furniture, electronics and clothes were re-used or given away. Throwing out prepared food was unheard of, says Dehradunwala, now 24. “It wasn’t difficult to find someone who wanted your extra.”
When Dehradunwala moved back to the U.S. to attend New York University, she took that mentality with her. Seeing homeless people eating from trash cans shocked her. Compared to what she’d seen in Pakistan, throwing away excess edible food seemed “an insult to people who can’t afford to eat,” she says.
In 2013, Samir Goel, a classmate, asked Dehradunwala to help pitch a business idea for a school competition. Almost immediately, she thought of her time in Pakistan and knew the question she wanted to answer: How could people with extra food share with others who needed it?
“I thought, ‘What if I could pick it up for you? What if I could take it to a shelter for you? Would that incentivize you not to throw it away?’ Hunger isn’t a food problem, it’s a logistics problem,” says Dehradunwala, “and logistics can be solved for.”
Dehradunwala solved for the logistics issue by creating Transfernation (think Uber for food.) She and Goel didn’t win the contest, but kept pitching the idea at different competitions. A year later, they finally won their first round of funding from the Resolution Project (disclosure: The Resolution Project is a paid partner of NationSwell).
From there, Dehradunwala and Goel created an app that allows corporate cafeterias and caterers to schedule a pickup of leftover, unused food. Within an hour, a driver transfers the leftover food (Wagyu beef steak! Wedding cake!) to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen.
“The same food a corporate executive was eating less than an hour earlier is now being eaten by someone from a drastically different walk of life,” Dehradunwala says. “When the food reaches the shelter, it’s usually still hot.”
Transfernation first relied on volunteers. Now, they’re a fee-based service. Clients pay a small monthly or one-time cost per pickup. That’s used to compensate delivery people, who aren’t always behind the wheel of a car. They ride bikes. Sometimes, they walk.
“We’re looking to change the way that people view acts of ‘charity’ and attempting to create a model that benefits the people doing the actual transporting of the food instead of relying solely on their goodwill,” says Dehradunwala. “Volunteering is a privilege that many people can’t afford to partake in. With our model, the pickup becomes more than just an opportunity to do good, it becomes an opportunity for part-time employment.”
And yet, “it costs us under 20 cents to redistribute a pound of food and less than 25 cents to make a meal,” says Dehradunwala.
Since October 2016, Transfernation’s rescued over 210,000 pounds of food. It serves nine shelters in the NYC area, and its donations fill the bellies of 4,000 people each week. Three of these food programs rely completely on Transfernation’s deliveries.
While dropping off food at a shelter on a recent day, a woman waiting for the doors to open recognized Dehradunwala – and the Transfernation bounty in her arms. “You’re the people who bring the good stuff!” she exclaimed.
“It’s one of my favorite moments,” Dehradunwala admits.
The entrepreneur (who only graduated college in 2016) will have many more moments to come. Next up: Expanding Transfernation to communities outside the New York City area. “The way people view their extra food,” says Dehradunwala, “is changing.”