Smile Politely

Striving for Zero Percent

Rajesh Karmani moved to Urbana from Pakistan to pursue a PhD in computer science at the University of Illinois. He gained experience with local non-profits, charities, and student organizations, but he never anticipated that he would be a co-founder of Zero Percent.

Zero Percent is a not-just-for-profit company that has set out to reduce waste by transferring excess food to those in need. This is a bit of a shift for the organization, which they’re announcing today, officially. Zero Percent began in 2010 by offering deep discounts on food at local restaurants, which the founders spoke about it detail with Smile Politely in 2011.

But Karmani realized that the original approach wasn’t an efficient reduction of waste and has since refined its focus. According to him, citing American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It) by Jonathan Bloom, forty percent of food goes to waste across the supply chain in the U.S., while one-sixth of the people are on food assistance. It’s the constant battle with over-abundance to which efficiency tends to lend itself. It’s not solely an American problem, but we are renowned for our promotion of excess.

Combating these issues is a huge undertaking, which has helped expand Zero Percent. “We’re looking for local champions. Technology is only part of the story; we need feet on the ground to make connections,” Karmani said. “There’s no real competition; we’re just creating partnerships.”

These champions are not only coming in the form of participating donors, but also in the volunteers involved with Zero Percent that help make it possible. Joining Karmani are students and young professionals, including Julie Carlson, Director of Community Outreach. Carlson is a Natural Resource Conservation student at the University of Illinois who was recommended to Zero Waste by one of her professors. It was during her travels in West Africa that her awareness of the disparity between abundance and waste was illuminated. And, although she is new to her position, the service-oriented, bottom-up change that Zero Percent strives towards was just what she was seeking. “I love seeing change and making change happen. It’s nice to connect with energetic people who are passionate about this,” Carlson said.

Another new member is Omar Muniz, Director of Partnerships. Muniz is based in Chicago where he reaches out to national and community businesses. His interest in food waste began as simply as a Google search, which led him to an article on Tech Cocktail, and eventually to Karmani on LinkedIn. Muniz is approaching his new endeavor with an open mind and sees the far-reaching implications that an idea like this can have. “We’re very much in an exploratory phase. Each agency has a different set of problems,” he said.

Help of international student group Enactus, a team of undergraduate students, are also working on a semester project to help Zero Percent. They’ve helped in the marketing process with social media, informational brochures, and videos.

“They found me. There’s an inherent passion,” Karmani said.

The Zero Percent team just returned from Indianapolis on Tuesday where they met with John Williamson of Food Rescue Indianapolis to help troubleshoot their food donation problems with other non-profit agencies. The meeting also served as a launch for the new version of the Zero Percent app.

Einstein Bagels was the first donor locally and it remains the greatest contributor for the service. In 2012, Einstein made over 110 donations, amounting to over 3,000 pounds of food. In addition to Einstein Bros. Bagels, local donors include J. Gumbo’s, Great Harvest Bread Company, Li’l Porgy’s, and Strawberry Fields. “They’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” Karmani said.

The app itself is easy to use and doesn’t require much effort on the part of the donator — it’s all in the code. The establishment simply uses the app or the site to post a donation, which is processed by the system. This results in a generated text message that is sent to local food agencies (Daily Bread, Salvation Army, Safe House in Urbana, Times Center, Church of the Brethren Food Pantry, and Restoration of Urban Ministries are all local agencies who receive donated goods through Zero Percent). They then respond with a simple “YES” or “NO” to whether they will be able to claim the donation. If they are unable to make it, the system resends the information to the next eligible agency. It’s quick and efficient. Karmani says that the system has “perfect memory,” so that everyone gets equal chances.

The future looks bright for Zero Percent, which has received grant money from the Case Foundation and expanded to service areas of Phoenix and Denver that were in need of a technology platform to manage their food waste. Karmani outlines three goals for Zero Percent for continued growth: have an impactful service, self-sustaining revenue models, and be scalable (ideally the service should be able to work anywhere that has food waste). By 2018, Karmani realistically expects to hit one billion pounds of donated food per year.

While the idea of zero waste may seem unattainable to some, it doesn’t seem to have an impact on the Zero Percent team. Karmani assures that he has remained pragmatic along the way in his vision and understands that all change has to start somewhere: “If we don’t set the goal, we might not work hard enough.”

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