Kathleen Hu (BSIE 2018) calls Dibbs on reducing food waste

Charlotte Collins
3/2/2018

The United States is among the top producers of food and agricultural commodities across the globe. America produces the most corn, soybeans, and is among the top producers of wheat, meat and dairy products as well. 

Paradoxically, in a country that seems to be harvesting more than we can eat, and exporting 20 percent of it, 12.6 percent of American households are food insecure. It’s estimated that approximately 30 percent of the food products made for consumption are wasted around the world, but in the America, the number is closer to 50 percent. The United States boasts astronomical food production, is home to millions of people struggling with hunger, and is at the same time the most infamous food waster worldwide.

Kathleen Hu wants to close those gaps.

Hu took a gap semester in Paris, where she saw firsthand a platform for combating the issue of food waste.

“Both hunger and food waste are huge problems in the United States,” says Hu. “I thought it would be such a good idea to implement it in my hometown of Champaign-Urbana, so that’s how it came to be.”

Hu built a team in December of 2016 and named the platform Dibbs, which is currently in the development stages for a web app. She aims to reduce food waste and “produce nutritious meals for people in the community, so it’s a win-win for all.” The platform is set up for local grocery stores, like Common Ground Food Co-op, to make donations of culled food that must be pulled due to cosmetic reasons or near shelf life, but is still fit for consumption. Dibbs provides a conduit to arrange pickups with food agencies like soup kitchens, food pantries, and religious organizations that serve community dinners.

“The grocery store can post what they’re willing to donate and then on the other side agencies can view this dashboard, call Dibbs on what they need and then go and pick it up at a specified time and location,” says Hu.

Though the web app is still in the piloting and development stage, Dibbs is already pulling its weight in the community. Hu and her team of five have partnered with several local grocery stores to link them up with food agencies, including the Jubilee Cafe, Wesley Food Pantry and Uni Place.

Johnell Bentz of the Jubilee Cafe uses Dibbs to facilitate food pickups. The Jubilee Cafe offers a free weekly meal to members of the community in need and with Dibbs, she has been able to get organic, locally-grown produce free for the community meal.

“We have a small budget of about a hundred dollars a meal ,and we’re averaging around forty people that come in every week, so when we can come in and pick up food at the co-op that Dibbs has connected with us, it’s helped us stretch our food budget," says Bentz. “Plus we get delicious, local, organic food.”

Common Ground’s Outreach Coordinator Sarah Buckman says the partnership with Dibbs has been able to save the Jubilee Cafe 100-200 lbs of food a week. She feels that Hu’s platform aligns very well with Common Ground’s own ambitions. 

Part of the co-op’s mission is to provide healthy organic food to the community, but Common Ground has also made it a goal to have little to no food waste. To achieve this, the Urbana grocery has been working with local food pantries, as well as collecting compost materials for nearby farms to dispose of culled food in a way that is both environmentally friendly and serves the local community.

Buckman says Dibbs has exposed the co-op to more food pantries in Champaign-Urbana they had formerly missed out on, like Jubilee Cafe. 

“For a really long time we had been working with food pantries and composting all of our food and giving it to farmers, but we really wanted to make sure we were meeting the needs of all of the food pantries here in Champaign-Urbana,” says Buckman. “Dibbs was able to let us know that there were other food pantries that were just emerging, like Jubilee Cafe, that just started last year.”

Hu credits her entrepreneurial know-how in part to her Industrial Engineering major and the problem-solving techniques she has learned as an ISE student.

“The department is so supportive, there’s so many resources, and I think the biggest takeaway from engineering at Illinois is all the classes I’ve taken that just teach problem solving,” says Hu. “When you’re running a startup, there are so many challenges and ambiguous problems. The department has really taught me about working hard and being creative and solving problems.”

She’s proud of her work so far; despite still being in its developmental stages, Dibbs has facilitated “over thousands of pounds of food donated,” according to Hu. It was also named the winner of ISE's 2017 Mottier Innovation Challenge. In order to get more good food on the table instead of in the trash, Hu's ultimate goal for Dibbs is a nationwide expansion of the platform. The startup is currently considering a growth by universities model.

“The company’s mission is 'save food, do good,' and just to make an impact in this world when these problems are so big and they’re only growing,” says Hu. “Whatever we can do to make a national impact is the goal.”

Recent News

Asu Ozdaglar is the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She will be speaking November 18.