As many families prepare for the annual Thanksgiving feast, not everyone has the opportunity to sit down to a traditional meal on Thursday, or any other day of the week. The statistics about food insecurity — hunger — in our region are stark.
“Missouri is one of the hungriest states in the country,” said Mark Taylor at Operation Food Search, a food bank that distributes 200,000 meals a month in St. Louis and 31 surrounding counties in Missouri and Illinois.
In the greater St. Louis region, one of every six individuals lives in poverty and struggles with hunger. That includes more than 125,000 children.
The definition of food insecurity is not knowing where your next meal is going to come from.
A St. Louis startup is dedicated to providing meals to the hungry. And it’s doing it in an innovative way by tapping into popular social media trends as well as consumer support for socially conscious businesses.
CEO Andrew Glantz, 23, created GiftAMeal during his sophomore year at Washington University. The company uses a mobile app that allows restaurant customers to post photos of their food on social media. In exchange, the company makes a donation to pay for a meal through Operation Food Search.
Glantz was inspired by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, a fundraising campaign that went viral on social media in 2014 and solicited millions of dollars in donations for the ALS Foundation. But it was just a blip on the screen for the short attention span of social media.
Glantz thought there must be a way to harness the power of photo sharing for a good cause and make it last longer than a few weeks. He and a fellow summer intern at a venture capital fund devised a business plan that would harness the power of social media, provide marketing for restaurants and create a sustainable pipeline of donations to food banks.
“It was incredibly difficult to pitch to investors in the beginning,” Glantz said. “People thought, 'Why would I take a picture of my food?’ And then I would show them stats of people posting pictures of food on Instagram and they were like, ‘Oh, that’s nice, but that’s not really a business.’”
Glantz was not pitching a non-profit business; he wanted investors so the company could grow quickly and provide a return on investment. “We’re an LLC, a standard for-profit company. It’s just that we’re making a bigger commitment to give back to the community by incorporating purpose into our core business model. So, as we’re able to grow and be more profitable, we’ll be able to make more donations and give more meals to those in need.”
Glantz said once he had quantitative data to prove that the GiftAMeal app could provide value to restaurants by attracting customers, and that app users would engage and repeatedly post photos, investors started to take notice.
GiftAMeal started winning entrepreneurship competitions nationally. Locally, It received seed funding and support from the St. Louis accelerator Capital Innovators in 2016. Last month, Glantz won two of the top prizes at the Startup Connection and announced a second round of funding from private investors. This month, GiftAMeal was named one of 20 startups to win a prestigious $50,000 Arch Grants award.
How It Works
GiftAMeal earns revenue by charging restaurants a fee to be featured on the mobile app. In return, the app promotes the restaurants to its users. Also, users can see how their photo generated a donation.
The app has 19,000 users and more than 125 restaurants participating, so far. The majority of the restaurants are in St. Louis with a handful in Detroit and Chicago as the company begins to expand.
“These restaurants are reaching a new audience to drive traffic to their restaurants,” explained Glantz. “People can sort by type of restaurant on the app, filter by distance and cuisine type, and find new places to eat.”
One of those restaurants is Three Kings, a pub-style bar in the Delmar Loop with three other locations in the region, including St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
“Andrew came in and presented his idea and it seemed kinda like a no-brainer,” said Three Kings owner Ryan Pinkston. “We were there at the very beginning of it. And I told Andrew, ‘I think you’ve really got something and it’s a great idea.’”
Pinkston said he donates to many community groups throughout the year, but he likes the idea of using technology to reach new customers and do good at the same time.
Customers at Three Kings post an average of 400 photos monthly.
For every food photo posted on the app, GiftAMeal donates 11 cents — enough money to pay for one meal or 1.2 pounds of food — to Operation Food Search.
To date, GiftAMeal has funded more than 184,000 meals.
Glantz emphasized that his company’s app is not a substitute for charitable giving, “It’s a complement,” he said. He hopes it raises awareness about food insecurity by connecting customers and restaurants that share similar values.
“The core concept of GiftAMeal isn’t about the photo of the food ... it’s about the customer engaging in a positive experience in the restaurant. So, with something as easy as clicking a button, you’re able to make a difference in your community,” he said.
With GiftAMeal already expanding into Chicago and Detroit, Glantz's goal is to partner with restaurants and food banks — coast to coast — and end hunger, one photo at a time.
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