A few days after the food waste-reduction app Too Good to Go launched in Philly, an opinion column from Philly Plain Dealer, an independent, relatively new website housing local news, opinion pieces, horoscopes, and more, started floating around the internet. The piece, which was written by Veronica Carden, asserted that Too Good to Go was not welcome in Philadelphia.
Too Good to Go is a global for-profit company whose mission is to reduce food waste by allowing restaurants to sell leftover food to consumers as “Surprise Bags” for as little as $5. The company first launched in Denmark and spread quickly across Europe. It launched its U.S. operation in the fall of 2020 and opened for business in Philadelphia this February.
Too Good to Go’s promotional materials hit the following fact hard: One third of food produced globally is wasted. The company’s goal is to save some of that food from the trash and create value for businesses and consumers. Those who recall images from last spring of thousands of gallons of milk being dumped because of supply-chain issues will be unsurprised to learn that most waste happens long before food reaches grocery stores, restaurants, and homes. Still, Too Good to Go says it has “rescued” more than 100,000 meals in the United States since its launch, which it equates to the carbon footprint of 281 flights from New York to London.
Carden, a restaurant industry veteran and the founder of Club Sandwich, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and mutual aid organization that works to offer meals, safe sex kits, and other support to Philly’s poorest communities, says the app has the potential to disrupt important food channels for some of the city’s most vulnerable populations.
“If people are going to come into Philly’s food ecosystem, they need to make it better, and if they don’t make it better, they really need to leave it alone,” she says. “The people they’re targeting are not the most vulnerable populations in the city — the people who could really benefit from discounted food.”
She believes the food being sold in Too Good to Go’s mystery boxes would be better off being donated or given away.
“It’s not the best system in the world,” she says. “But we need to talk about the fact that there are people who live off of food that they pull out of dumpsters. That’s where this city is at.”
Carden’s concerns highlight a question that has been asked repeatedly over the last year: What role do restaurants play in the project of making Philadelphia a more equitable city? Many restaurants threw their support behind social justice initiatives last summer, and the calls for businesses to do better in supporting their employees and communities have continued. Over the past year, many restaurants have pivoted their businesses and partnered with nonprofits to provide meals for those profoundly affected by the pandemic, while others have focused on the very complicated question of how to simply stay open during a global pandemic.
Judy Ni, owner of Baology in Center City, is among those who have maintained the business side of their restaurants while also cooking meals weekly for organizations like World Central Kitchen and Step Up to the Plate. Ni says Too Good to Go has given her an outlet for a small number of meals each week.
“I’ve built my business to create as little food waste as possible,” she says. “But every now and then we have a few dumplings that are damaged or overcooked, and those are what we sell via Too Good to Go.”
Ni also emphasizes that while she and her team do cook many meals each week that are given away for free, those meals are cooked and served with the same care and attention they give to the meals they sell.
“We do not give away leftovers or damaged food to people who are food insecure — that would be disrespectful,” Ni says. “The people who are buying the food bags aren’t food insecure in the traditional sense; they’re coming at it from a food waste perspective, and if they appreciate the savings as well, that’s great.”
Most of the food sold through Too Good to Go isn’t the kind that food banks or social service organizations accept. It’s just not enough — a misshapen pizza here, a few leftover pastries there. And while there are people who need that food, the question of connecting them with businesses who have it is much more complicated. Even organizations like Philly Food Connect, which offers pickups of surplus food across the city, doesn’t accept small-scale donations like what Too Good to Go sells.
“Just because you can’t make $1.39 off something, that doesn’t mean it’s trash,” Carden says. “There are so many people who need that food — restaurant workers, even, because no matter how hard they work they’re not making the same amount they were pre-pandemic. Or just give the food to someone you see on your walk home.”
Ben Miller, a co-owner of South Philly Barbacoa, which has recently partnered with the People’s Kitchen to run an ongoing free meal program out El Compadre, says he doesn’t see Too Good to Go as an issue for the group’s mutual aid work.
“Restaurant margins are thin,” Miller says. “If people can add a few percentage points to their bottom line, I think that’s great.”
Though she understands some concerns with the platform, Ni says she’ll continue using it until a better alternative presents itself.
“I can totally understand why people wouldn’t agree with this,” she says. “But I decided that it works for me to get rid of one or two meals a week that I can’t give away for whatever reason. If someone in the mutual aid community wanted to create those logistics, to literally pick up one or two meals on demand and deliver them to someone who needs it, I would do that. But those logistics don’t exist. It’s really hard to do that — I know because I’ve been working on it.”
Too Good to Go says they’re selling about 150 bags a day from 92 restaurants that are currently signed up.
It’s clear that the pandemic has revealed the fundamental inequalities in this country, and that inequality is particularly stark in a city like Philadelphia, where more than 20 percent of the city’s residents lived in poverty even before 2020. In many ways, the failure of the U.S. government to support those who are out of work and otherwise affected by the pandemic has placed undue pressure on individuals and restaurants.
“I think that often harm is progressive,” Carden says. “We might not feel a pinch from this platform today, but we will eventually. I think it’s important from a mutual aid standpoint to advocate for vulnerable people.”
“Maybe the concerns with Too Good to Go are really about how businesses are run in general,” Ni says. “If that’s the case, then let’s have a conversation about how to support businesses that are doing well and paying attention to food waste. We don’t need to scapegoat one business for what is really a systems issue.”