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Taste of success: FoodCloud uses technology to get surplus food to nonprofits more efficiently

At 89, Margaret Cappock still bicycles around her Dublin neighborhood. Her apartment is filled with the furniture her husband built, part of the family business she managed for 50 years. She may be retired, but she is not complacent. Like many, she’s concerned about the impacts of climate change on her three children and six grandchildren.

“I’m very much aware,” she says. As part of doing her part, every week Cappock makes batches of orange juice using donated surplus fruit that otherwise could end up in a landfill – the worst possible place for it.

When surplus food is thrown away, it’s not just a missed opportunity to feed someone at a time when food prices are generally rising and food insecurity is expected to increase worldwide. Food put into landfills releases methane, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas-emitting country in the world, behind China and the United States, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said in a report.

Two women and food
Aoibheann O’Brien, left, and Iseult Ward, the founders of FoodCloud, started it in 2013. Photo by FoodCloud.

The staggering consequences of food waste appalled Aoibheann O’Brien and Iseult Ward. The two are co-founders of FoodCloud, which offers two services to redistribute surplus food: technology and warehousing. Their technology platform – Foodiverse – directly connects food retailers with surplus or excess food to local community groups. They also work closely with the Irish food industry to identify and rescue surplus food from food manufacturers, producers, growers and distributors and redistribute it to community groups from one of their three food redistribution warehouses, or hubs, across Ireland.

FoodCloud, recently named Charity of the Year by the Charities Institute Ireland Excellence Awards, uses their diverse platform and warehousing solution – and it’s also the technology that’s providing Cappock with all those oranges. These solutions leverage Microsoft Azure, Dynamics 365 and Power BI, helping FoodCloud redistribute as much food as possible.

O’Brien and Ward were students at Trinity College Dublin in 2012 when they met. They were part of a campus group for future social entrepreneurs who were encouraged to see what setting up a social enterprise involved. The two shared a love of food – and a disdain for food waste.

“The more I read and the more I understood the problem, I became fascinated and motivated to play a small part in addressing the issue,” says O’Brien, who at that time was a post-graduate student getting her master’s degree in environmental science.

Fruit and vegetables (detail)
Some of the fresh fruit and vegetables at the FoodCloud warehouse Dublin hub. Photo by Anastasia Pivovarova for Microsoft.

Ward, then an undergrad studying business and economics, had “always been very passionate about food and its social power to bring people together,” she says. “To hear from Aoibheann that food was damaging our environment when it was going to waste – I remember the feeling of ‘This is it, this is the thing that I really want to get involved in.’”

One of their first acts was taking donated groceries from a farmers market in Dublin and delivering them to a shelter for children.

“That donation was maybe three grocery bags of food,” says O’Brien. As the duo became more experienced, “We did everything we could to make it as efficient as possible. But essentially, we picked up food and dropped it off. We thought when we started, if that was just one farmers market in one part of Dublin, and the food was so good, can you imagine what’s happening in communities across the country, and then globally, and how much food is wasted?”

The answer is astonishing: 931 million tons of food sold to households, retailers, restaurants and other food services goes to waste each year, according to a 2021 report from the United Nations (U.N.) Environment Program and a partner organization. The U.N. has set a target of reducing world food waste in half by 2030.

O’Brien and Ward had tapped into a big problem. The answer for FoodCloud, launched in 2013, lay in technology.

“We realized it wasn’t going to be scalable for one organization or one group of people to go around collecting surplus food for communities,” says O’Brien. “We knew technology was the enabler to scale.”

At that time, Ireland did not have a national food bank, O’Brien says, but there were organizations and charities that could use food donations and supermarkets and food companies that had food that was still good but considered surplus – and the two needed to be connected.

“When people think about food waste, an image comes to their minds, they’re thinking compost bin probably,” says Ward. That’s not surplus food.

Food is labeled as surplus for a range of reasons, including an excess of a certain product on store shelves or cans where a label is partially torn. It can also include food that is labeled as “best if used by or before” – which is not a “buy by” or safety date, but rather when a product has its best flavor.

“This food is actually nutritious, it’s delicious, it’s valuable – so you do have to kind of change people’s minds and perceptions around food waste and surplus food,” Ward says. “That’s why we use the language ‘surplus food,’ rather than ‘food waste’ because it isn’t waste – it’s surplus. That’s quite important so that people really understand it.”

You do have to kind of change people’s minds and perceptions around food waste and surplus food.

Since 2013, FoodCloud has redistributed nearly 180 million meals across their two solutions in Ireland, the U.K. and parts of Europe, estimating it has kept more than 75,000 tons of food from going to waste and into landfills.

Tesco, the U.K.’s largest supermarket chain, decided to partner with FoodCloud in a pilot program with Tesco’s 146 stores in Ireland. The 2013 partnership was so successful, Tesco expanded it to its more than 3,000 stores in the U.K. The bulk of Tesco’s surplus food includes fresh fruit, vegetables and bakery products.

FoodCloud continued to refine its technology platform, Foodiverse, so that it was simple for both supermarkets and nonprofits to use, a huge plus for Tesco.

“Where they started from technology-wise to where they are now is light years apart,” says Lorraine Shiels, Tesco Ireland head of corporate social responsibility and internal communications. “They developed a solution that we saw could work and could integrate within our technology,” and it was something that any Tesco employee could easily use.

Scanning onions
A Tesco worker scans potential surplus food for donation. Photo by Tesco.

“Simplicity in retail, as in any business, is incredibly important for any sort of sustainability of process,” she says. “And the fact that the app they had developed was incredibly simple but achieved an end goal was really, really important to us.”

Foodiverse is hosted on Azure. Power BI also plays a key role in much of the internal reporting developed by FoodCloud. Now, the nonprofit is also incorporating Dynamics 365 Business Central to unlock other insights, including conducting stock counts and movements live on the floors of FoodCloud’s three hubs, and enabling prompts to highlight where there may be issues to resolve.

Dynamics 365 sped up FoodCloud’s processes significantly and so far has helped contribute to an 11% increase in surplus food redistribution, year over year

FoodCloud is fully integrated into Tesco’s technology systems in stores, Shiels says. “We can look to absolutely every item of food that we scan through in the evening to donate is trackable and traceable, so that we’re fully able to measure end-to-end our donations – the amount of meals that we donate, the kilos, broken down by store, the carbon footprint associated with it. There’s a great level of insight and reporting behind it from a business perspective.”

FoodCloud is also now working with Tesco in central Europe, including the Czech Republic and in Slovakia. It also has partnerships with other supermarket chains including Aldi, Dunnes Stores, Lidl, Musgrave MarketPlace and Waitrose, and international food companies including Kellogg’s.

Kellogg’s began working with FoodCloud in Ireland in 2020, donating surplus breakfast cereals and breakfast bars. The company has a long history of donating food to families and to schools’ “breakfast clubs” in both Ireland and the U.K.

Men loading a truck
Deliveries are loaded onto a FoodCloud truck at its Dublin warehouse, or hub. Photo by Chris Welsch for Microsoft.

“We know our food is very popular amongst FoodCloud’s beneficiary organizations,” says Kate Prince, senior ESG (environmental, social and governance) manager for Kellogg Europe. “For many families, obviously it’s a very convenient and quick breakfast.”

And it doesn’t require heat to eat, which is becoming more and more important now. “Many people are struggling with rising energy costs, and so for those families, breakfast cereal is a good option,” she says.

Kellogg’s is also doing a “significant rethink” of how to “overcome the challenges facing today’s food system,” Nigel Hughes, Kellogg senior vice president of Global R&D and Innovation, wrote in a recent blog post. “We must move from a linear approach to a circular one that prioritizes regenerative production, reduces resource inputs and aims to ensure recovery for future uses and minimize wastage.”

In the U.K., FoodCloud works with FareShare, the national network for charitable food redistributors. FareShare sorts surplus food in regional warehouses, then distributes it through a network of over 9,000 nonprofits. FareShare has been working with FoodCloud since 2013 when they developed the Tesco back-of-store solution together.

“We have formed an incredibly impactful solution for the U.K. working together to redistribute food from across the retail, wholesale and food service industry,” says Li Brookman, head of FareShare Go, which provides charities and community groups with direct access to surplus food local supermarkets, wholesalers and restaurants.

Aidan McNamara says having FoodCloud’s technology app on his phone makes it easy for him to know when and what food will be on its way to Rosepark Independent Living in Dublin, where he is the manager. Sixteen residents, ranging in age from 64 to 95, live at the nonprofit facility.

McNamara is also the Sunday chef at Rosepark, where fresh meals are prepared daily, including three-course lunches.

Plate of vegetables
Donated vegetables and some yummy menus by the staff mean nutritious meals for residents at Rosepark residential center in Blackrock, a suburb of Dublin. Photo by Chris Welsch for Microsoft.

Residents have the option of making food in their apartments, but with Rosepark’s sumptuous menus – including main courses like sirloin steak with peppercorn sauce and onions, turkey and ham with cranberry sauce or fillet of salmon with Hollandaise sauce – and the enjoyment of socializing at a meal, they have little reason to dine alone.

FoodCloud trucks deliver food, including meats, from their Dublin hub to Rosepark. Menus are planned a week in advance, McNamara says, “but we would change it if we see something that’s coming that there’s a lot of – for example, yesterday we got a load of melons and they were ripe. So the residents had melon for lunchtime today, and the soup came off the menu. And there’s a couple of dishes I make using melon as desserts.”

McNamara would be a good candidate for FoodCloud’s version of a celebrity chef program called “All Taste Zero Waste,” where celebrity chefs and charity chefs “battle it out to help the planet” by making tasty meals using surplus food.

Margaret Cappock, who has called Rosepark home for three years now, since after her husband died, appreciates the surplus food creativity. Cappock was a child during World War II and remembers how food was rationed because there was not enough of it. It bothers her to see food go to waste.

“It’s getting to be very important to use surplus food,” she says. “I am very conscious of not wasting anything.”

She is happy to make her own juice with the surplus supply from FoodCloud. “I squeeze 10 oranges at a time, and I get a whole bucket of orange juice that lasts a week,” Cappock says. “And then I start all over again and do it again. I never buy orange juice.”

It’s that kind of response that makes the work FoodCloud does so gratifying. On its website, FoodCloud notes that kindness is one of its key values.

“It’s something that’s very important to us,” says Ward. “As a nonprofit, you have a very focused mission. But ours was bringing together this problem of food waste – which is an environmental issue – and this problem of food insecurity – which is a very social issue – and we were saying that they were both equally our mission.

“We asked ourselves and our stakeholders, what brings this all together? And it was kindness. It was kindness to people. And it was kindness to our planet. And we care about both.”

We asked ourselves and our stakeholders, what brings this all together? And it was kindness.

Top image: An employee prepares delivery orders at the FoodCloud warehouse in Dublin. Photo by Anastasia Pivovarova for Microsoft.