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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Syrian Immigrant Rewrites Playbook on Tackling Food Insecurity in the U.S.

By Kate Zerrenner
food insecurity

Many of us have long been reminded about food insecurity one way or another. Did your mother ever tell you to eat your dinner because there were people starving in other countries? When food recovery nonprofit Replate founder Maen Mahfoud was growing up in Syria, his mother made him and his brother do something about those hungry people in their own community. “My mom used to cook us so much during lunch,” he told TriplePundit, “and before anyone touched the food, she would ask my brother and me to go on our bikes and do a run to take some of that food and distribute to our neighbors, who were facing challenges, or had their partners outside of the country, or working in construction.”

It was really hot in the middle of the day in the Middle East, and he and his brother hated doing such an errand, but it planted a seed. That seed is now his organization, based in the Bay Area, which works in eight states with companies like Chipotle, Netflix and Snap Kitchen, with plans for expansion both in the U.S. and abroad.

A nonprofit founded upon witnessing food insecurity amongst wealth

When Mahfoud first moved to California, he was both thrilled and dismayed. “I was extremely excited to be here at the forefront of advanced technologies that are really solving the world’s problems,” he said. But at the same time, he watched people across from the Twitter building in San Francisco digging through trash bins to find food. “It was a reflection point for me,” he added, “thinking of my childhood and of living in a place where we’re creating companies that deliver cookies in less than 20 minutes from home to home."

That sparked in him the idea to marry the two. It started with taking excess food from corporate campuses and local restaurants and delivering them to shelters, soup kitchens, and encampments for the unhoused. Americans waste nearly 40 percent of our food. Why then, Mahfound wondered, can’t we address food insecurity and the environmental impacts of food waste at the same time?

The environmental impact of food waste

Throwing away so much food not only wastes the product, but it also has significant knock-on effects. Rotting food in landfills (where most food waste goes) emits methane and carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change. But that does not even reflect the full story. When food is wasted, so is the energy and water used to grow, process, distribute and prepare it. This is part of what’s known as the food-energy-water nexus, which makes clear the inextricable link between the three.

Food recovery programs like Feeding America have done a lot to bridge that gap, but they’re still only reaching a fraction of the food that goes to waste — and 38 million Americans are estimated to be experiencing food insecurity, a number that increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Mahfoud, part of the problem is the need for more scalable technology solutions. “You can see clearly there’s an issue of the supply of food and there’s an issue of the demand of it,” he told TriplePundit. “So how do we actually connect that supply to the demand?”

A business model that not only tackles food security, but provides much-needed data

Mahfoud’s solution was to address the problem at the food service level rather than the household level. Replate works directly with businesses that have a surplus of food and nonprofits that are in need using a data-driven dashboard. “The impact metrics that we provide for our clients are very accurate,” Mahfoud told TriplePundit, “and they’re able to engage with their stakeholders on sustainability and environmental and social impact numbers.” 

Scalability is a key goal for Mahfoud. Replate hires employees at a living wage or uses contractors to reflect the costs associated with delivering high-quality surplus foods, and also works directly with food providers to create a partnership that factors in accountability for food waste. The organization also supports other local food recovery organizations, like Denver Food Rescue or Rescue Leftover Cuisine, who benefit from logistical help or revenue sharing programs. “We try to build an ecosystem of food recovery in different regions, rather than trying to replace them,” Mahfoud said. “That’s the whole idea of empowering food recovery organizations.”

The platform also gives businesses and nonprofits insight into the kind of food they provide to end users by providing nutritional information on the surplus food. This has a two-fold benefit: helping to reduce “donation dumping” but also providing essential macronutrients and micronutrients to people who experience food insecurity and higher levels of prolonged malnutrition. The business-to-business tech platform allows food suppliers to track not only the delivery of the food, but also the social and environmental metrics like pounds of food recovered, meals created, which nonprofits benefited, and how much carbon dioxide and water were saved in the food system.

Generating impact with an eye to the future

Replate has recovered more than 3 million pounds of food to date, creating nearly 50 jobs in the process. The food it has rescued has resulted in the savings of 900 million gallons of water and diverted 6.75 million pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. Nevertheless, Mahfoud has an even bigger goal: “Replate envisions a world where nothing expires. The way we think of it is, the population is growing. Conflict is increasing. Pandemics, climate change, so many challenges that affect our potential to grow food and to feed our growing population.”

Further, Mahfoud would like to create an infrastructure to maintain a circular economy for surplus food to help address food insecurity. “Instead of trying to create more of that [surplus] food, how do we repurpose what we have in the most transparent, scalable, efficient way possible?”

As health scientist and immigrant, Mahfoud sees his experience as a benefit for his work, bringing “a different perspective to what a safety net is and how community building happens.” The combination of science and empathy brings a sharp focus to his work. “At the end of the day, we should always keep in mind the end user… the person who is experiencing food insecurity, the family that has a need for a certain kind of food, and what kind of food they need.” 

Image credits via Replate blog and Facebook

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner