Entrepreneurs put Europe's leftover food online
- 2 July 2014
- From the section Europe
Would you eat a stranger's leftover lunch? Across Europe, apps and websites that distribute excess food are edging into the mainstream as both start-ups and charities join the sharing economy trend.
But critics are calling for better regulation to police hygiene standards.
If you are hungry in Hungary, you could do a lot worse than tucking into one of Judit Szilagyi's dishes. When the 26-year-old student gets home from university, she spends her evenings roasting spicy vegetables, mashing creamy potatoes or frying sweet pancakes.
She posts photos of her food on Piqniq, a new Budapest-based app, which allows her followers to request a portion for themselves.
"My biggest hobby in the world is to cook," she says.
"It's not the same if you don't have someone to share your food with. And if you've made too much to eat by yourself then why not give it to someone else who wants it?"
Gorging on someone else's half-gobbled goulash or snacking on their surplus sausages certainly won't be to everyone's taste, but Hungary's venture into the food-sharing economy follows the rapid success of similar start-ups around Europe.
Greek company Cookisto began as a community to connect family cooks hoping to make some extra money with busy business people looking for an affordable hot dinner. In just 12 months it has attracted 40,000 members in Greece and the UK.
Other similar sites include Shareyourmeal.net, which has 62,000 home cooks in the Netherlands and 20,000 in the rest of Europe - making food with influences from as far afield as Indonesia, Afghanistan, Japan and India - and Leftoverswap, which started in the US last year and now has an expanding base in Europe.
Piqniq was co-founded by Tamas Kiss who used to travel a lot through his previous job as a consultant and missed Hungarian home cooking when he on the road.
"I wanted to build an app to allow me to peek into my neighbours' kitchens and see what they are eating, what they are making, what's in their fridge and then somehow connect with them," he explains.
The start-up currently asks users to share meals free, although there are plans to allow cooks to sell their food to strangers in future.
"Our data shows that early adopters seem to be engaging either because they don't want to eat the same food every day or because they feel proud and want to show off about what they make. For others it is just about being social and having fun," adds Mr Kiss.
In the not-for-profit sector, German-language sites lead the way, with a focus on stopping people throwing away leftovers at a time when a third of all our food ends up going to waste.
Foodsharing.de and its sister initiatives in Austria and Switzerland have attracted more than 50,000 users since 2012.
Analysis: Dr Lisa Ackerley, Chartered Environmental Health Practitioner
The idea of sharing food to avoid waste is great, but my advice is to stick to non-perishable goods, such as sealed jars, packets or tinned items. Unprocessed fruit or vegetables are also a great option because you can see they are fit to eat.
Sharing home-cooked food is more of a risk - even if you are swapping dishes between friends or colleagues - unless you can be sure that they follow hygienic practices. Even in the cleanest houses, good cooks can make mistakes when preparing meals, because of ignorance about simple food safety measures: for example, how to cool food down quickly after cooking and how to store it safely.
In Germany alone, Foodsharing.de claims to have saved at least 35,000 tonnes of food that would otherwise have ended up in the bin.
"We find a wide range of users from those struggling with everyday food needs, [to] also those who are just happy to offer and share and end up getting nice things back," says co-founder and web developer Jean Wichert.
He believes that the idea will gain further popularity as more Europeans embrace the sharing economy, which is currently strongest in Asia-Pacific and Latin America.
From a recent global survey, Nielsen interviewed more than 30,000 internet users and found that 54% of European respondents embraced the idea of selling or exchanging items online, compared with 68% globally. Those living in southern and eastern Europe were most receptive to the concept.
"For years people have swapped food informally and done things like car-pooling or finding a lodger for a spare room. And now mobile technology is helping us to take things a step further," Mr Wichert says.
But just as ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft and the apartment-loaning service Airbnb have faced questions about regulation and quality control, so food sharing sites are starting to attract criticism from those worried about health and safety standards.
One food-sharing site that does offer checks is Casserole club, which encourages people to share meals with neighbours who are unable to cook for themselves.
All of its 4,000 members in southern and central England must complete an online hygiene course and have a criminal record check before they prepare their first meal.
- Foodsharing - (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) - Bread, fruit and sweets
- Cookisto - (Greece and UK) - Baked pasta dishes and casseroles
- Piqniq - (Hungary) - Seasonal dishes, paleo, vegan and organic food, desserts
- Casserole Club - (UK) - Curries and pies
Source: Founders of each site
Piqniq's co-founder Tamas Kiss has defended its open-door membership policy.
"If you go to a barbecue, you don't ask the host how they prepared their hamburgers. You don't question someone who brings a cake baked by their grandmother into the office."
He says that photo posts and online "high fives" (similar to liking something on Facebook), should give app users a good indication of what they can expect from chefs. And he has high hopes that his business model is set for success.
"We want to reach that stage where if you are hungry, you can turn to our app wherever you are in the world. We can put other fast-food companies out of business."