“I don t think I could ve ever imagined that one lunch would have changed my life forever, but that’s what happened,” Komal Ahmad, 25, tells PEOPLE.
In 2012, Ahmad had just returned from Navy summer training for her senior year at University of California, Berkeley and was walking down a main street near campus when she was approached by a “disheveled-looking” man who asked her for a few dollars so he could buy a sandwich.
Instead of handing him a couple of dollars and going about the rest of her day, she asked if he would join her for a meal.
“We sat and had lunch and I asked him his story and he said, ‘I just came back from my second deployment in Iraq, I was evicted from my house last week, I’ve been waiting for several weeks to have my benefits kick in, but until then, I don t have any money and I don t have any food,’ ” she says.
“And so I’m sitting in front of a veteran – someone who had made the most selfless sacrifice possible and something I was planning to make myself as I was about to enter the U.S. Navy – and this guy is now quite literally on the streets begging for food,” she says.
At this exact moment, Ahmad says her eyes were opened to what she calls “the world’s dumbest problem” – hunger. Seconds later, the then 21-year-old decided she would make eradicating hunger her life’s work. She started by founding an on-campus food recovery program to donate leftover meals from her dining hall to local organizations serving the homeless.
After founding her on-campus program, Ahmad reached a breaking point. Her dining hall manager called her with what should have been great news: a sparsely-attended event resulted in 500 leftover sandwiches that could go to those in need – but they had to be picked up within two hours.
“I rent a Zipcar and I drive to our dining hall dock, and I’m by myself, so it takes me 30 minutes to load the food,” Ahmad says. “Then I call our entire list of recipient agencies: shelters, Boys and Girls Clubs, the Salvation Army, and a third of them don t answer the phone, a third of them said they were good for that day and the last third said they would love to take 15 sandwiches.”
Ahmad ended up on the side of the road in a car containing 485 perishable sandwiches with no one to give them to – knowing full well that one in six people – and one in four children – in the United States doesn’t know where their next meal will come from.
“So I’m in the car on the side of the road in tears,” Ahmad recalls. “I am so frustrated because I’m just trying to do something good. It shouldn t be this hard to do something good. It’s so frustrating and so difficult to find the people that need the food.”
It was then that Ahmad realized – maybe 356 million pounds of edible food are thrown away each day not because no one wants to feed the hungry, but because it can be extremely difficult to try to do so.
Three years later, Ahmad serves as founder and CEO of Feeding Forward, a web-based platform that instantaneously connects businesses that have leftover food with organizations that feed the hungry. Since its inception, Feeding Forward has enabled businesses to donate over 722,000 pounds of fresh, high-quality food that would otherwise have been thrown away.
“When it comes to eradicating hunger, I don t think it’s about branding or showing what needs to be done, I think our approach is through making things easy,” says Maen Mahfoud, Feeding Forward’s Head of Internal Operations. “We want to change the environment around people to make it easy for them come up with the right decision.”
A product of the Bay Area, Feeding Forward’s environment-changing solution is web-based.
“The whole process takes two minutes,” Ahmad explains. “You create an account and say ‘Okay, my name is whatever org, I have 100 sandwiches left over, I need them picked up by this time, here’s my contact info and this is where I am.’ ”
The site uses an algorithm to match the given amount and type of food to the nearest shelters and organizations that are in need of food at that time. Drivers are then dispatched to pick up and drop off the donated food, and the business that made the donation receives photos and testimonials from the individuals it helped.
For Eric Venable, San Francisco City Director of City Team, a non-profit that serves the poor, Feeding Forward allows his organization to serve a higher quality of meal.
“They are giving us very high-quality food,” Venable tells PEOPLE. “The food is catered for major startups and they grab those leftover meals and bring them to us – the homeless are coming in and they are literally eating like kings.”
Most importantly, the food that is being donated is higher in protein than a lot of the options normally provided by organizations that serve free food every day.
“We worry a lot about how to bring enough protein to people on the streets,” Venable says. “When these people get money, very often they go out and buy junk food, comfort food. With this really good donated food, there’s more protein. That just really helps those who are eating one, maybe two meals a day.”
While Feeding Forward is still very much in what the staff likes to call its “bootstraps phase,” the organization has begun to hear from people all over the world who are hoping to replicate its model.
“We’ve gotten more than 6,000 requests from people who want to expand nationally and around the world – from Brussels to Israel to Berlin to France,” Mahfoud tells PEOPLE.
“Just like you can hail an Uber, you should be able to donate your food in minutes,” Ahmad says. “My dream was never for this to be just nascent here. I will not rest until it is at least on six out of seven continents. No one has contacted me from Antarctica, so I’ll assume they just have it together there. I’m not going to rest until this is something we’ve spread everywhere.”
To find out more, visit FeedingForward.com.
Know a hero? Send suggestions to email@example.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine