A Brazilian non-profit shows how a GPS-powered app can end food waste

The Invisible Food platform shows that a planet without waste is possible, illustrating how technology can aid in the development of a more sustainable economy.
André Aram

In a country with a little over 215 million inhabitants, in 2022, the scale of hunger continues to advance in Brazil. According to a recent survey, only 4 out of 10 households had full access to food. The rest are divided between those who face some form of food insecurity, including those who are hungry, and those who fear they will not have food in the future.

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At the same time, a 2018 FAO report indicated that an estimated 26.3 million tons of food were wasted every year in Brazil. This led to a wide variety of negative outcomes, such as more wasted resources and increased prices for consumers.

In an attempt to alleviate hunger in the country and combat food waste, a Brazilian app has been trying to reduce these problems using geolocation technology.

The main objective of the Invisible Food application is to connect those who have food to donate with those in need. Beyond supplying a basic need, the initiative also aims to reduce food waste and collaborate on the reduction of greenhouse gases and losses related to poor food distribution networks. The social startup, named ‘Comida Invisível’ in Portuguese, was created by Brazilian lawyer Daniela Leite who works as CEO of the project.

A Brazilian non-profit shows how a GPS-powered app can end food waste
Eggplants in trash

According to information from the United Nations (UN), based on data from 54 countries, an estimated 931 million tons of food were wasted by food producers, business establishments, and households in 2019. This amount represented around 32% of the total global food production that year. Of this, around 14 percent of all food produced globally is lost between harvest and retail, while about 11 percent is wasted in households, 5 percent in food service, and 2 percent in retail.

In other words, we are talking about a global issue that covers both developed and underdeveloped countries. It is an environmental, economic, and social question.

"We need to give the good food the right destination, because this provides benefits for society and for the planet," says Leite.

Currently, Invisible Food involves more than 4,000 individuals that donate and/or receive donations, more than 400 NGOs that receive donations, and a little over 150 companies that donate. The service is available throughout the country as a web or mobile version and aims to connect donors to assisted people. The result of this initiative accounts for more than 190 tons of food donated to over 3 million people in Brazil since the startup's creation five years ago.

One of these benefited organizations is Projeto Arrastão, located in Campo Limpo, a district in the southern region of São Paulo. It provides support to needy families for education and cultural projects, for developing the quality of life, and for emergency actions against hunger. The donations received ranged from fruits, vegetables, bread, and even sweets for the children being assisted. According to Paulo Masagão, president of Projeto Arrastão, avoiding waste is an essential part of the larger fight against hunger. The initiative helps achieve this by allowing purchases to be replaced with donated items.

"Donating food is dedicating yourself to a cause that saves lives because it guarantees the survival of families in need. The rise in unemployment and the price of food make eating every day a challenge for millions of Brazilians who live in poor communities," comments Masagão.

How to donate and receive food through the app

Through registration on the platform, donors can list food they have available for donation (which must be in good condition), the expiration date, and how the collection should be made (whether the donor will deliver it or the recipient needs to come to pick it up). Those receiving – either individuals or an NGO – can send a request through the app, and once a donor accepts the request, the next step is to schedule through a chat how the delivery will be made. It is not uncommon to have multiple interested parties for the same donation, in which case the donor must choose who they want to give to.

A Brazilian non-profit shows how a GPS-powered app can end food waste
Food bagged for donation

When registering the item to be donated, a photo can also be added, and it is important to state the characteristics of the item, such as expiration date, how it needs to be stored, or if the recipient needs to bring a thermal bag when picking up the food. Although individuals can register to both donate and receive donations, most donors are businesses, such as restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, etc. It is important to emphasize that sale of products is not allowed through the site, as this platform is to be used exclusively for the donation of fresh food, processed products, and ready meals. Those looking for food usually need to be quick because once a food item is entered into the platform as available, it takes, on average less than 10 minutes to find a recipient. In addition, businesses generally prioritize donating to institutions (nurseries, orphanages, NGOs, etc.) rather than to individuals.

In Europe, there are a number of apps that aim to combat food waste, but these tend to work by selling surplus food from bakeries, markets, and restaurants for a cheaper price. Applications such as Too Good To Go and Phenix connect people with commercial establishments that have surplus food, such as bread, cakes, fruits, vegetables, and other foods, which they offer at a discount. Customers search for food near them and then pay through the app. Businesses save on costs, customers get food at a cheaper price, and surplus food is used to satisfy someone's hunger instead of ending up in the garbage. However, compared to these two European platforms, Invisible Food has a more charitable focus, as it gives food away rather than selling it.

A Brazilian non-profit shows how a GPS-powered app can end food waste
Invisible Food app

Wasn't it forbidden to donate food in Brazil?

Food donations have never been illegal in Brazil. Brazilian Law 14.016/20 authorizes establishments that produce food to give away surpluses for free, provided they are still fit for human consumption. Products must also meet certain criteria, such as having been kept in storage conditions specified by the manufacturer.

This law was passed, in part, because of concerns that donors could be held liable in the event that someone eating donated food became ill. As to this worry, the platform tries to clarify this question by explaining that there will only be a liability if it is proven that a donor intentionally tried to cause harm to someone. In addition, the recipient assumes responsibility for the donated food and undertakes to store and handle it responsibly.

The entire Invisible Food donation process follows this Brazilian law, which has been in force since 2020, as well as the Sanitary Surveillance's Good Food Handling Practices policy. In this way, it helps ensure legal protection for those who wish to make a donation and attempts to correct misconceptions about liability that were preventing some in Brazil from donating food.

The hungry cannot wait

The pandemic has further aggravated the hunger situation in the country. According to data from the National Survey on Food Insecurity in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Brazil, conducted by the PENSSAN Network (Brazilian Research Network on Food Sovereignty and Security), 33.1 million Brazilians do not have enough to eat. A recent survey pointed out that more than half (58.7%) of the Brazilian population deals with some kind of food insecurity to different degrees: light, moderate, or severe (hunger), defined by the FAO as lacking regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and for an active and healthy life. The survey was conducted in five regions of the country between November 2021 and April 2022.

Initiatives like the Invisible Food platform show that a planet without waste is possible, where individuals and businesses can play a role in fighting world hunger and economic inequality. It also illustrates how technology can aid in the development of a more sustainable economy.