Philadelphia Food Rescue Organization Develops a Scalable Model for Food Donation – Food Tank

Based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Sharing Excess is working to rescue and redirect surplus food away from landfills. Now with a permanent warehouse, food distribution van, and their first wholesale partnership, the organization aims to expand their model to cities nationwide.

Sharing Excess began in 2018, when a group of college students at Drexel University banded together to address food insecurity on campus and in the surrounding West Philadelphia community. “We have always believed in the fact that young people are catalysts for meaningful change,” Evan Ehlers, Founder of Sharing Excess, tells Food Tank. In the past two years, Sharing Excess has grown to become one of the largest food rescue operations in Philadelphia.

During the pandemic, Ehlers tells Food Tank, “there was no single service dedicated to ensuring that 100 percent of food waste was captured.” While some businesses transitioned to curbside pickup or delivery, others had to temporarily close, a massive surplus of perishable food leaving. According to Feeding America, food insecurity increased by 50 percent during the pandemic and one in five Americans started turning into food banks, food pantries, and other food assistance programs.

Ehlers and his team response by distributing surplus food from restaurants and retailers to the community. A Philadelphia Inquirer article highlighted Sharing Excess’ work—and as a result, in just one day, 100 new volunteers signed up to work with the organization. The team was inundated with calls from local business owners, asking for their services. The aftermath of the article, Ehlers explains, was a “call to action” and enabled Sharing Excess to scale up operations.

Throughout the pandemic, Sharing Excess distributed 3.6 million kilograms of food—equivalent to US$15.5 million—and ensured it didn’t end up in landfills, where it would release harmful greenhouse gases. They their first warehouse and received a van for food donations from purchased Philabundance, a food bank and Feeding America partner. They also collaborated with more than 200 food banks, community organizations, and mutual aid efforts. Overall, Sharing Excess reports growth of more than 400 percent.

Sharing Excess continued to expand operations through a partnership with the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, one of the largest wholesalers in the United States. Since beginning their wholesale rescue operation in mid-2021, the organization has rescued and redistributed more than 2.2 million kilograms of food.

Through their ongoing partnership, Sharing Excess is able to recover edible food and bring it directly to communities. Their volunteers set up pop-up events where community members can choose what they take home. They also host free, educational potlucks to inform community members about food waste in their city and ways to get involved.

“We’re trying to destigmatize the act of distribution and provide more opportunities for cultural connection,” Ehlers tells Food Tank. At food distribution sites, Sharing Excess volunteers thank community members for being part of the food waste solution.

Ehlers explains that Sharing Excess is also developing technology to “make it easier for the general public to get involved in food rescue.”

They recently launched the Food Rescue App, an open source hub where community members can coordinate their own pickups and deliveries. The app tracks daily impact and provides volunteers with step-by-step instructions. “We wanted to improve the existing infrastructure of food banks, food businesses, and mutual aid organizations and take on the burden of the most tedious logistics,” Ehlers tells Food Tank.

Ryan McHenry, Director of Technology at Sharing Excess, designed the app with support from 100 interns from Drexel University. “The architecture we chose…provides a wildly approachable, yet powerful and scalable structure for our app to grow, and our student engineers to grow with it,” McHenry writes.

Ehlers says that the app is open source “so tech innovators can take it and run with it, to modify the app in a way that helps it work best.” Currently, Sharing Excess is partnering with ReFED and DoorDash: Project DASH, whose teams help develop and improve the app.

Ehlers tells Food Tank that they hope to work with larger technology companies that can bring the app to the general public and establish more wholesale rescue partnerships in cities like New York, Boston, Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Denver. They also hope to set up what they call food rescue hubs. These community-facing institutions will serve as spaces where volunteers can interact with the community.

Before trying to expand, Ehlers emphasizes the importance of developing a fully sustainable and scalable model in Philadelphia. “Our national expansion depends on going deep in one area first. We want to develop a really sustainable model before branching out.”

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Photo courtesy of Sharing Excess

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