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Komal Ahmad smiling in front of glass wall

If you’ve ever left a meeting or event where there were tons of leftover food and wished there were an easy way to give it to those who are hungry, you’re not alone. Thanks to Komal Ahmad, this is now a possibility.

The 28-year-old entrepreneur didn’t set out to solve the world’s hunger problem. “I’m the daughter of South Asian immigrant parents, so I had a few very distinct career options laid out for me from an early age: doctor, lawyer, or engineer,” Ahmad explains. “I always wanted to be a Bollywood actor, but I ended up doing something more realistic.”

Her journey from University of California, Berkeley, student and midshipman in the Navy to founder and CEO of Copia  — a food redistribution company — began one afternoon when she asked a man begging for food on the streets of Berkeley to join her for lunch.

In between bites, the ravenous man shared his story. “He said, ‘My name is John. I just came back from my second tour in Iraq. I’ve been waiting weeks for my benefits to kick in and I haven’t eaten in three days,’” Ahmad recalls.

“This really hit home for me because he’s a veteran, someone who sacrificed for our country only to come home to face yet another battle — that of hunger and especially homelessness,” she says. “Adding insult to injury, right across the street, a UC Berkeley dining hall was throwing away thousands of pounds of perfectly edible food every day.”

Seeing the stark reality of those who have and waste juxtaposed with those in need who starve across the street sparked a realization: “It’s not a lack of food that’s the issue; it’s ineffective distribution of our food,” Ahmad says. 

“Imagine a football stadium filled to its absolute brim  — not with last night’s pad thai or this morning’s half-eaten croissant, but with healthy, high-quality, untouched food. That’s how much food goes wasted every single day in America,” she says. 

“Clearly, hunger is not a scarcity problem — it’s a logistics problem.”

To try to solve what Ahmad now calls “the world’s dumbest problem” — food being wasted on a massive scale when so many people are hungry — Ahmad marched to the dining-hall managers and asked them what they did with all their leftover food. “They said, ‘Well, we try not to have any,’” she recalls. 

After more pushing and prodding from Ahmad, they finally admitted they had excess food and threw it away because of liability concerns. 

Ahmad didn’t give up. She did some research and discovered that in 1996 Congress had passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects companies from liability when donating excess food.

A week later she brought this information to the dining-hall manager, who agreed to donate the university’s leftover food — and one of the nation’s first food-recovery organizations on a college campus was born.

A More Efficient System 

As a result of Ahmad’s negotiation, students began picking up food from dining halls, on-campus meetings, and athletic events and redistributing it to the community. But Ahmad realized quickly that the system was inefficient. 

“One day I was sitting in class, and our dining-hall manager called saying they had 500 sandwiches left over from an event that needed to be picked up in two hours because they needed the refrigerator space, so I dashed off across campus to go pick up the food,” she says. “Then I called every nonprofit in Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond. A third of them didn’t answer the phone, another third said they didn’t need any more food, and the last third said they could use 10 or 15 sandwiches. I’m like, Great, now I only have 485 sandwiches left to donate!

“I pulled over to the side of the road so frustrated and thought about how this process could be so much easier, because it shouldn’t be this hard to do a good thing — the right thing,” she says. 

Her moment of frustration was replaced by a spark of inspiration. “I thought about how much more effective it would be if those who have food and the people who need it could get matched through a virtual marketplace. It would solve a real problem for both of them,” she says. 

So, Ahmad set out to build what she called “ for sandwiches.” 

Version 2.0 — known as Copia — is a for-profit platform that connects corporate cafeterias, hospitals, universities, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that have excess high-quality food or raw ingredients with nonprofits that need food.

“We built an algorithm that matches businesses’ exact amount and type of food to a local nonprofit that can use that quantity of food that day,” she explains.

A driver is automatically dispatched to pick up and deliver the food. The nonprofit signs a receipt that is sent — along with photos and testimonials from the organization about the number of people who were fed — to the donor for tax purposes. 

“Donors get to see the real impact they make by spending less than two minutes of their time going to Copia,” she says. “They also get actionable insights from our data into what kind of food is being wasted: numbers on when, why, and how much. Our predictive analytics help them make better purchasing and production decisions.”

Copia has recovered more than a million pounds of food so far and is on target to feed 2 million people this year. The company’s reach has expanded beyond the San Francisco Bay Area and California to Dallas, Denver, and North Carolina. 

German and Austrian government officials have also contacted Copia looking to get help distributing food and other items to Syrian refugees. 

With the help of partner SF Fights Fire, “we were the first ones mobilizing in the North Bay during one of the worst wildfires in California’s history, providing food to tens of thousands of fire evacuees, members of the National Guard, and first responders,” Ahmad notes. 

Impossible Is a Dare

While she may sound like Wonder Woman, Ahmad says, “I haven’t done this alone. I have a fantastic group of skilled technologists, operational and logistics experts, designers, and sales and marketing people behind me.

“We’re building a movement and need everyone to get involved,” she adds. “If you have or know of a business anywhere in the country with extra food, connect me with them.” Using its proprietary technology, Copia gets businesses and donors connected within two weeks.

And what does she say to those who tell her that eliminating hunger is impossible? “I respond to them with the words of an ad featuring the late, great Muhammad Ali: ‘Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.’

“We have more than enough resources to feed every person on the planet, so this isn’t a naive dream of mine,” Ahmad says. “We know this problem can be solved.”  

Photography by: Kwaku Alston

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