Mobile app facilitates food donations across Phoenix

The application, developed by students from Arizona State University, is the U.S. finalist for Software Design in the 2012 Microsoft Imagine Cup.

My husband and I are big leftover people, which means we almost always leave restaurants with doggy bags that will tide us over for at least one additional meal.

Truth be told, however, most restaurants and other organizations that produce prepared foods with a short shelf life have very few options for disposing of the excess responsibly at the end of the day. Local health regulations usually make donations tough to organize, to boot.

Enter an experimental mobile application that offers restaurants, catering companies, delicatessens and hospitality organizations a way of helping get prepared food items that would otherwise be headed for landfills or composting into the hands and mouths of people who need it.

The software, developed by students and entrepreneurs representing Arizona State University (ASU), was last week picked as the United States finalist in the tenth annual Microsoft Imagine Cup. The Microsoft competition challenges students to use technology to address "the world's toughest problems."

The ASU students, who go by the name Team FlashFood, have created a Web services application that uses Windows smartphones to help volunteers coordinate pickups and deliveries of food that is left over from restaurants, delis and catering organizations. A mockup of the application is below:

Right now, the application is only being tested in the Phoenix metropolitan area, said Eric Lehnhardt, captain of Team FlashFood.

There are two views for the software: a donor view and a driver/delivery view. When businesses have excess food to donate, they use the application to specify what's available, the best time to pick it up and other special instructions. On the delivery side, the person in charge of the shift can figure out who is available to facilitate the delivery. The recipient receives a text alerting them about an anticipated delivery time. The application providers drivers with directions, pulled from the Bing maps database. Algorithm assign a priority to possible recipients based on their location and whether or not they have recently received a donation.

"We are trying to go after the food that is prepared and needs to be consumed rapidly," Lehnhardt said.

Team FlashFood envisions their organization as part non-profit and part for-profit venture. The plan is that restaurants, catering organizations and others that want to participate in providing donations would receive a certification notifying the local community that they have complied with certain donation guidelines.

The most challenging thing to negotiate has been local health regulations; the team has spent many hours educating itself about recovery guidelines. Those guidelines will make FlashFood difficult to scale, although Lehnhardt envisions other local organizations in major metropolitan areas around the United States using its application as a model for their own operations.

Team FlashFood could win $10,000 in the finals for its Imagine Cup awards category, Software Design. The finals are being held in Sydney, Australia, in early July. Over the past decade, more than 1.65 million students representing 190 countries and regions around the world have participated in the competition.

The video below provides more detail on the FlashFood concept:

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