Newly updated, ChowBank offers virtual introduction between food donors and recipients

Aubrey Alvarez is not an app developer.

But as executive director at Eat Greater Des Moines, Alvarez saw what the stakes were without an efficient solution to connect food “waste” from potential donors, like event planners or caterers, to potential recipients, including nonprofits and school pantries.

Alvarez and the board of directors at Eat Greater Des Moines knew the organization could fill the need – and, with the help of several partners over time, launched the ChowBank mobile app in May 2016.

Known as “food rescue,” businesses and nonprofits alike saw the benefit food donations could provide, but they didn’t have the capacity to build those partnerships on their own.  

“We don’t necessarily need to be the middle piece, but how can we make it easier and more efficient for donors to find the right recipient?” Alvarez recalled thinking.

Alvarez started calling organizations in the U.S., asking anyone she could what kind of technology they used to make that process easier. Most organizers could only tell her how they used programs like Excel spreadsheets – not quite what she was looking for – until a contact over at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources saw a TIME magazine story on an app called Food Cowboy, which matches semi trailer drivers with extra pallets of food to area food banks.

A partnership between Food Cowboy and Eat Greater Des Moines never worked out – Food Cowboy’s mission was too narrow to serve the needs Alvarez and the board wanted to fill in Des Moines.

“That’s when we saw a thing on the news about a group of Simpson College students who had created an app for the Des Moines police department,” Alvarez said. “We had the concept of what we were looking for: make it easy for a donor to list what they have, where they’re located, how much of it and were they willing to deliver, and have that information pushed out to a network of (organizations).”

Alvarez called Simpson College’s EMERGE program with her pitch; soon, Thomas Klein and program director Chris Draper took up Alvarez’s call for the 2016 release, and stayed on the project as Eat Greater Des Moines introduced ChowBank to donors and recipient organizations.

The app received a design update in January 2018, which added a desktop-enabled version of the software and an automatic tax receipt for every donation. Other communities are also exploring using ChowBank locally, including a group in Kansas that is piloting the app.

In 2017, Eat Greater Des Moines tracked 4.2 million pounds of food recovered by community partners that was redirected to nonprofits; today, ChowBank has 300 total users, and since the update was released, ChowBank had more donations go through in the first quarter of 2018 than the entire previous year, Alvarez said.

“It’s amazing the kind of gaps that it fills for these organizations that maybe aren’t typically who you think of when you think of donating food,” Alvarez said. “We know with food rescue in general, having those relationships is beneficial … They can get to count on that food, and then reduce their food budget because they can replace it with some of these items that they’re getting.

“ChowBank is just that jumping off point for a lot of these places, that hopefully they’ll see that food rescue is easy.”

Now, Eat Greater Des Moines is trying to fill another gap in the food recovery challenge – providing transportation when donors or recipients can’t deliver the food themselves.

“We’re not a technology company, but we know that technology can make a lot of this stuff easier,” Alvarez said. “One of our core values is just being innovative .. We know that there’s gaps – if someone has ideas on how to solve them, we’re all ears.”