CHICAGO — After the success of Chicago Restaurant Week and the newly launched Black Restaurant Week, a Chicago startup is rounding up nearly 100 restaurants and charities for Restaurant Giving Week.
The goal of the week is to help end food waste, while at the same time providing healthy food for nonprofits all over the city.
Some of Chicago's favorite restaurants are participating including Lou Malnati's, Parson's Chicken & Fish, Doughnut Vault, Perry's and Hannah's Bretzel.
The week is part of the Chicago-based tech startup Zero Percent's mission to completely end food waste.
For every $5 donated to a Chicago charity, which will cover food rescue transportation costs, donors will receive a voucher for a treat from one of 20 participating restaurants.
The first Chicago Restaurant Giving Week will be held Feb. 22-28, but those looking to participate can make donations starting Monday.
The startup, which launched in 2012 at the University of Illinois, has grown exponentially over the past two years serving as a go-between for restaurants with extra food and nonprofits that need it. There are currently about 100 restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores donating food that would have gone to waste on a weekly basis and 80 Chicago nonprofits that received fresh food as a result.
"Initially we were connecting restaurants in Lincoln Park with nonprofits in Lincoln Park," Zero Percent founder Rajesh Karmani said. "Now we feel like we can make a much bigger difference connecting restaurants with food deserts.”
To create that larger network, Karmani created a web-based platform called foodrescue.io, a logistics program to streamline transportation of the food from restaurant to nonprofit.
The new website allows people to choose a charity and make a donation that will be spent entirely on transportation costs to get food to the chosen organization.
On average a $1 donation equals between three and five meals.
One of those recipients, Peace House in Englewood, starting working with Zero Percent about a year ago, receiving a shipment of fresh food once a week.
"It's awesome for us for so many reasons," said Robbin Carroll, founder of I Grow Chicago, which runs the Peace House. "Feeding people is really important, but what I've come to find that as much as they talk about food deserts, there's really exposure desert."
When Peace House first started with Zero Percent, neighborhood kids who come to the house to practice yoga, urban farming and meditation had never tried many of the fruits or vegetables that were arriving, according to Carroll.
"I couldn’t get anyone to eat a strawberry," she said. "Nobody had seen strawberries, so why would you eat them?”
About a year into the program, those Friday deliveries have kids looking forward to some of their new favorite foods, according to 30-year-old Englewood resident Clarence Franklin, who has two young daughters. ages 1 and 5.
"My kids love fruits now thanks to Fridays," Franklin said. Their favorites are grapes, apples and peaches.
Zero Percent initially covered the costs of transportation by charging nonprofits 30 cents per pound for food, but has since moved to a model that requires the nonprofits to pick up the food themselves.
If they are not able to, Zero Percent coordinates an independent driver such as Postmates that is paid for through donations to foodrescue.io at a delivery fee of between 7 and 30 cents a pound depending on the time and distance.
Currently about 40 of the participating nonprofits handle the pickups themselves.
When the nonprofit is ready to pick up food, the driver will log into the platform and receive a "mission" directing them to one or multiple pickup sites that day.
"It's really an efficient logistics platform that we've built," Karmani said.
As Zero Percent has grown, the organization has attracted a wider range of businesses such as corporate offices and larger events that are catered.
On average, the operation rescues about 2,000 meals a day, seven days a week.
"We are committed to solving these problems that stand in the way of ending hunger, ending food deserts, cutting down food waste," Karmani said. "We know that we don't have to purchase food to end hunger. We can simply rescue food and make sure logistics are reliable and consistent."
As part of Chicago Giving Week, Karmani hopes to spotlight the growing network of both restaurants and nonprofits that is providing fresh food for thousands of Chicagoans.
He estimates that if 50,000 Chicagoans give $5 a month, the organization would be able to make fresh food accessible to every community and neighborhood in the city.
One of the restaurants that's been participating since early on, Lou Malnati's, has grown from one location to three that are donating food that would have otherwise gone to waste.
The pizza group has plans to expand its food rescue to six locations in the next month.
"The thing that makes Zero Percent so amazing is you just set up what's convenient for your location. Their staff comes and gets it and it couldn’t be easier," said Colleen Feliciano, general manager of Lou Malnati's Gold Coast location. "They are reliable. It's not something [where] we have to worry about storage space.”
Lou Malnati's locations schedule pickups three times a week and the donated food includes pizzas, soups, meatballs and salads.
"In an operation this big we always have extra pizzas," Feliciano said. "They usually come [when] somebody cancels when the order is already made, we have no-shows ... They are whole pizzas many times or soups that are beautiful and half a batch is just not sold.”
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