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Unsung app aims to curb hunger, food waste

Unsung app aims to curb hunger, food waste.

As Jason King parked outside St. Vincent de Paul Church on Saturday morning, he was immediately greeted by some familiar faces, and quickly began doling out bologna sandwiches, bananas and bottles of water from the back of his car.

For some, the meal would be the only food they get this weekend.

"The problem is massive," said King, who stopped by the church to hand out the free bag lunches he had prepared earlier that morning with bread and luncheon meat donated by a local grocer who couldn't sell it. On the way from the Towson store, he managed to hand out half of the 150 meals.

To combat hunger and food waste, King created an app called Unsung, which allows users to see local stores, restaurants and caterers with surplus food. Users then volunteer to pick up the food and hand it out. King said the technology helps streamline getting food to those in need by eliminating further waste and time to collect and hand out the food, while also making it easier and more flexible for those who want to help.

"We focus on the number of meals fed," King said. "It's really a basic concept," he said, likening it to other "sharing economy" apps, which help make use of underutilized items. Unsung helps connect unused food to those in need, just as Airbnb helps connect those in need of a room to those who want to make use of an empty bedroom or apartment.

Last week, King said work was slowed after a break-in at Unsung's headquarters, where burglars took laptops, equipment and software from the nonprofit's Patterson Park "hacker house" on Potomac Street.

Outside the home, a posted note reads: "To those who robbed this house yesterday on 8/29, you probably didn't know this, but it was occupied by We are a charity dedicated to ending hunger in America."

Though the stolen equipment is a setback, the note continued, "we believe in the resiliency of the human spirit. We still believe in Baltimore."

King said he was inspired to open the headquarters in Baltimore after the rioting following the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015. Just days before, he said, he moved back to the area and was preparing to open the headquarters in Washington when he decided instead to move the project to Baltimore, where the need is greater.

Unsung continues to grow with about a dozen people signing up each day to volunteer and is now helping feed people in six cities.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 30 percent to 40 percent of the total food supply, about 133 billion pounds worth almost $162 billion, goes to waste.

"Everyone cares. You just have to make it easy for them," said Dean Masley, who co-founded Unsung.

He said the app is also a benefit for volunteers, recalling when he first handed out meals.

"The guy's face just lit up," he said. The food — salmon, lamb and pasta entrees — had been salvaged from a wedding. After the food was delivered, Masley said the bride was able to see pictures of the delivered food and was pleased she was able to help, too.

"That immediate rush, it benefits you more than that person," Masley said.

King said he wants to expand to local schools, where teachers are often tasked with making sure students are getting enough food.

More than 48 million people live in "food insecure households" in the U.S., of whom about 15.3 million are children, according to the nonprofit Feeding America.

Earlier this year, the Baltimore County Council approved funding for a pilot program that would extend a free meal program to all students, to encourage more kids to eat nutritious meals and help improve academic performance. Baltimore City schools already offer free meals to students systemwide.

But King said he's talked to teachers who are still struggling to feed kids who don't get enough food at home.

For Gary Barnes-Bey and others at the park at Fayette and President streets, Saturday's food drop-off was a relief and provided a much-needed meal. Barnes-Bey said there are few resources for the number of homeless individuals in the city.

Barnes-Bey and others ate their lunches where they slept.

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