Using the Power of Technology for Good

Using the Power of Technology for Good

 “COVID-19 forced us to do in three weeks what we’d planned to do in three years.” When Second Harvest CEO Lori Nikkel spoke to Microsoft News in July 2020, she wasn’t exaggerating about the time shift. 

At the onset of the pandemic, millions of Canadians lost their jobs and became food insecure and hungry. Communities and social agency partners needed more food to meet the 40% increase in demand. Meanwhile, millions of pounds of food were about to go to waste from restaurant kitchens forced to close, and from food producers, manufacturers, and distributors across the country dealing with cancelled orders from their usual customers. 

The expansion of Second Harvest’s food rescue operations, using tech to facilitate hyper-local partnerships between food donors and non-profit food programs, went from local to national at record speed to help redistribute the surplus food – but even before the pandemic, the tech was showing the strain. 

The non-profit technology’s food donation web app and server were designed in 2017.  

Before the launch of the app’s pilot program in 2017, the non-profit brokered all food rescue over the phone and in emails with trucks delivering food mostly in the Greater Toronto Area. This was labour intensive and many communities were being missed. The app was developed to foster connections between local donors and their neighbour non-profit food programs, for example, a local coffee shop that has a dozen sandwiches and a homework club that needs snacks. Amounts that were too small to be part of the fleet’s pick-up routes could be conveniently handled through the app. 

The app launched as a pilot program in five Ontario communities, then went Ontario-wide in fall 2018 and launching British Columbia in mid-2019. But the app would crash if 10 or more food donors or agencies were trying to give or receive food surplus at a time. It wasn’t scalable or optimized for country-wide support.

“We had a proof of concept in the existing platform but needed a robust version that could scale with us—and support a greater user load, server capacity, and functionality,” said Veronica Summerhill, Second Harvest’s Director of Product Development. 

Before the pandemic, the team connected with Mark Arteaga, the president and founder of RedBit Development and brought his consultancy team on board to transform the platform. They had been working with Second Harvest for about a year and understood the impact that the non-profit could make with the right technology. 

Non-Profit Technology to Amplify the Mission

How the Second Harvest Food Rescue App exceeded its small and sometimes glitchy beginnings cannot be told without RedBit Development, a Canadian engineering and design consultancy, that overhauled the web app and built a new mobile app within three weeks of the pandemic’s onset.

This tremendous feat won them the 2020 Microsoft Community Response Partner of the Year Award, which recognized partners that provided innovative solutions in response to the pandemic. RedBit was also awarded as a finalist for Microsoft’s Social IMPACT Partner of the Year INSPIRE Awards

The ultimate reward, however, is in the impact that the new technology has already had on communities in need. In three months the amount of rescued food that was donated through the platform doubled to provide 1.5 million pounds of food to Canadians in need, which helped avert the release of 6 million pounds of greenhouse gases by keeping this good food from landfill.

Improving the Tech Behind the Scenes

Arteaga’s team had been leveraging some of Second Harvest’s existing Microsoft Azure software when three-year plans were fast-tracked to three weeks because of COVID. They could respond quickly because they understood the non-profit’s mission and had experience developing with the right tools in Azure. 

“From the previous version, we knew we needed more capacity so we scaled it out over three servers running at the same time,” Arteaga explained. “We changed the code so that users would connect to one of the three servers and not overload any one at a time. Everything is based on Azure.”

On the user-facing side of the technology update, the team refreshed the look and feel of the app and built the mobile application to have a smooth experience throughout the entire journey. For example, RedBit set up a notification system for agencies who had signed up on the platform to get automatic notifications via text or email to claim local food donations fast.

They also added a search and filtration functionality to easily find what they’re looking for. This now included non-food items, such as grocery gift cards, PPE, toilet paper, and other essentials. 

Users can now post whether a truck is needed for pickup or if a car will do, depending on items. A new reporting feature allows donors and agencies to pull their food rescue impact reports whenever they’d like. 

The list of features added during the food rescue app’s digital transformation goes on. 

When the Canadian Government granted Second Harvest $11.2 million to distribute to non-profits across the country, they needed a portal for non-profits to apply for funding. In just one weekend, RedBit created a technology solution that enabled organizations to use the app to apply for funding and, later, thanks to a large foundation donation, grocery gift cards. 

This kind of dogged hard work and talent—and in a time of so much global uncertainty—is part of what earned the RedBit team the 2020 Microsoft Community Response and finalist of the Social IMPACT Partner of the Year INSPIRE awards. 

Using Tech Powers for Good Causes

RedBit’s innovative problem-solving even caught the eye of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

“They went around and essentially created a system of connecting all of the food, solving the hard challenge in the pandemic: How can they scale a nationwide effort around food security?”  Nadella said to CRN. “That was fascinating.” 

“These are the types of partners doing hard work in communities that needed solutions in a constrained world of COVID, and it was fantastic to see that,” Nadella said to CRN.

The work on the Second Harvest app also had other benefits.

“It gave us focus and something meaningful to accomplish when the pandemic hit,” explained Hazel van der Werken, RedBit’s Head of Operations. “We were helping build something important, rather than adding to the panic. It was a bit of a silver lining for us.”

For RedBit, working with Second Harvest rekindled their goal as a company to use technology for good. “Building something that actually impacts someone’s life so greatly has a profound impact on everyone involved,” said van der Werken. “Non-profits are just like any other business that we support, but they’re often doing important social, economic, or environmental work. So why shouldn’t their technology be state of the art?

“We had the power, tools, and know-how to build Second Harvest a platform that could support their mission and so we did,” she said. “We believe that technology should always help. Never hinder.”

Building Non-Profit Technology Tools for Education

With a mission like eliminating food waste and hunger in Canada, the work at Second Harvest is far from finished. 

Second Harvest is also working with a learning experience design firm called Enable Education. Enable Education builds both content and digital learning technology for its clients. 

Ben Zimmer, the co-founder of Enable Education, generously donates 20% a year of his team’s bandwidth to help non-profit organizations. They have donated in-kind to Second Harvest for two digital projects. 

One will be a food waste reduction video game for kids in the Food Rescue Heroes program. The other is train-the-trainer programming around best-before dates, which will digitize and improve resources to make them more engaging and increase the reach. Misunderstanding of best-before dates and expiry dates is a key driver of household food waste since many people (incorrectly) believe that best-before dates are indicators of food safety. Both projects are in the planning phases and are set to launch in late 2021. 

“We thought about how we can keep our top talent inspired and engaged,” Zimmer said. “There is a unique opportunity for tech companies like ours to offer our skills. Why not support organizations that are making a real impact? It’s great for team spirit and morale.”

“If we can donate our technology and best practices, and as a result, Second Harvest trains 20 times more people about food waste without having to spend more time and resources, nothing would make us happier.”  

Stay tuned for more information on the upcoming new digital resources. 

Free E-Learning for May: Composting & Celiac Awareness

Free E-Learning for May: Composting & Celiac Awareness

Whether it’s using food scraps to enrich the earth or finding foods that help with healing, we have great webinars this May for you.

Turn Food Scraps into Compost

Thursday, May 13 at 2PM to 3PM EST

Gardening season is here at long last and whether you have a yard or a few pots on a windowsill, you can be a composting champ! Join us and learn how you can turn your food scraps into rich, natural fertilizer for your plants. In this webinar, you’ll learn how to create your own home composting and vermicomposting systems, bust food waste myths and get insider tips on how to maximize your compost. 

We are delighted to have two leading experts as presenters: Sunday Harrison, Executive Director and founder of Green Thumbs Growing Kids, which provides programs for students to raise food on their school grounds; and Cathy Nesbitt, founder of Cathy’s Crawly Composters, an environmental business specializing in vermicomposting (indoor composting with worms) and organic diversion. 

Sunday is an experienced gardener with a Landscape Architecture certificate from Ryerson University, a master’s degree in Environmental Studies, and a graduate Diploma in Environmental and Sustainability Education from York University. 

As an eco-entrepreneur Cathy has received more than a dozen environmental and green business awards since launching in 2002 and has been a featured guest on CBC TV and Radio, CTV, City-TV, and Global TV in addition to being the subject of articles in the Globe and Mail and Edible Toronto.

This is a free workshop but space is limited so register today on Eventbrite.

Pro tip: Take a later lunch and make this webinar your own personal lunch and learn – and share the invite with the green thumbs in your life, too.

This webinar is sponsored by:

Celiac Disease: Save Me for Gluten Free

Thursday, May 27 at 2PM to 3PM EST

Non-profit food programs that work with clients with celiac disease have unique challenges when seeking to support their nutritional needs using donated food. In this session, the Canadian Celiac Association will be sharing important information about celiac disease and how, with our food donations, we can better support people accessing food programs.

You’ll  learn how to identify gluten-free food and best practices to support people living with their disease. You’ll also discover how the Canadian Celiac Association can help food banks navigate and manage gluten-free food donations.

You’ll leave this session with a base of knowledge about celiac disease and gluten disorders and why people with these chronic autoimmune conditions require gluten-free foods to maintain their health.

This is a great session for people who work with or support any non-profit food programs – so make this session an org-wide event.

Pro tip: This webinar also has helpful information for people needing to know more about celiac disease and how to manage it.

This is a free workshop; click here to register on Eventbrite.

Our Food Rescue App is Coming to a Grocery Store Near You … and You …

Our Food Rescue App is Coming to a Grocery Store Near You … and You …

Empire and Second Harvest have formed a national partnership to implement the Second Harvest Food Rescue App at Sobeys, Safeway, IGA, Foodland, FreshCo, Thrifty Foods, and Voilà. Second Harvest’s food rescue app will enable Empire’s banners to divert food waste and offer even more access to fresh, healthy food to Canadian families in need. 

Empire plans to implement the app in its grocery banners over the next 18 months, and will use the app in its distribution centres and its e-commerce business. Once operational in all of these locations, Empire expects to rescue an estimated 31 million pounds of food, and thereby avert approximately 41 million kilograms of GHG emissions annually. 

“More than half of the food produced in Canada goes to waste, and yet one in seven Canadian families struggles with food insecurity. As Canada’s second largest national grocer, we have the reach and the responsibility to redirect this food into the communities who need it most,” said Mohit Grover, Senior Vice-President of Innovation and Strategy, Empire. “This partnership with Second Harvest is a significant step towards achieving our goal to reduce our food waste by 50 per cent by 2025.”

Second Harvest and Empire have been partners in the Greater Toronto Area since 2011, and recently completed a 12-week pilot of the food rescue program in 16 stores in Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia. The results of the pilot were very promising: more than 94,000 meals were donated to more than 30 community organizations, averting more than 110,000 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions.

Read the full press release here.

Food Safety for Non-Profits

Food Safety for Non-Profits

Second Harvest is in the business of food, and that means we’re in the business of food safety. Food safety is at the core of everything we do, and our 2,500+ partner organizations across the country have the same responsibility as we do to safely pick up surplus food from businesses and distribute it to their communities. That’s why we’ve created A Guide to Food Safety for Non-Profits, a new eLearning module available in English and French that’s a quick refresher on the key components to food safety in an interactive, accessible format. 

But whether you’re providing a community food program or just putting away your groceries at home, food safety is paramount for all of us. Here are some basics, with pro tips for food programs and advice for food safety at home.

Highway to (and out of) the Danger Zone

Food will grow bacteria if it’s left at room temperature. The Temperature Danger Zone is the temperature range between 4°C and 60°C where bacteria thrives. To keep food safe is easy: keep it out of the Temperature Danger Zone. 

Pro tip: During transportation, store food in coolers with ice packs, where it will stay below 4°C. When you arrive at your location, get food into a fridge or freezer right away. If you’re serving hot food to your community, keep the food in chafing dishes so that it stays above 60°C. 

For pros and at home: Stick with this simple rule to keep yourself safe: keep hot food hot, and cold food cold. 

Is it sanitized or only clean?

Did you know that cleaning means removing dirt that you can see, whereas sanitizing is killing 99.9% of bacteria? Wiping crumbs off your counter or mopping up a spill are good examples of cleaning; sanitizing requires approved chemical sanitizers such as bleach to kill the bacteria that cause food poisoning. 

For pros and at home: To keep everyone safe, clean and sanitize everything you’re using in your food prep areas. 

Want to learn more?

Join us Wednesday, June 2, 2021 from 1:30 to 2:30pm ET for our Food Safety for Non-Profits webinar. We’ll help you brush up on your food safety skills and we’ll also host a Q+A. Register for the webinar here

Hero Virtual Garage Sale

Hero Virtual Garage Sale

This spring cleaning season you’re invited to tidy your way to becoming a Second Harvest Hero through our Virtual Garage Sale, running May 17th to Friday June 18th. 

Using GiveShop’s on-line marketplace, Second Harvest Heroes are encouraged to donate, sell or buy gently used items on the free GiveShop app with proceeds going to support Second Harvest’sfood rescue operations. 

Four easy steps:

  1. Go through your cupboards and closets and dig out those gently-used items you no longer need.
  2. Take photos of what you want to sell at the Virtual Garage Sale
  3. Go to GiveShop and set up a free account and name Second Harvest as your designated charity.
  4. Mark your calendar for May 17 and get ready to help us achieve our $10,000 fundraising goal!

Would you like to make this a workplace fundraiser? Find out how by getting in touch with Kris-John Kucharik by email at

Thanks for your support!