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Jeff Miller was sitting in front of the TV when something caught his attention: It was a news report about a couple in Bend, Oregon who felt too scared to get out of the car to go grocery shopping amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It struck me," Miller, the former head of business development for autonomous vehicles at Uber, told Protocol. "Can you imagine being so scared of grocery shopping that you're crying in your car?"
That's when Miller did the math, he said. He realized the sheer number of immunocompromised people (about 10 million) and people over 65 (about 54 million) in the U.S. who would put themselves at risk simply by going to the grocery store.
Meanwhile, food insecurity may affect 42 million people in the United States this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Feeding America. If those predictions are right, food insecurity would increase by roughly 16% compared to 2019.
As a technologist, Miller figured there must be a way to use technology to help solve this problem. That's when he reached out to his old colleague, Pedram Keyani, a former director of engineering at both Uber and Facebook. Keyani had also helped run hackathons at both those companies.
Using the hackathon model, Miller and Keyani came up with the idea of connecting able-bodied, healthy people with those who should be sheltering in place. Within the first 48 hours of operating, they signed up over 1,000 volunteers. Some of those volunteers suggested Miller and Keyani formalize the service and build out an entire tech platform around it.
Enter Helping Hands. Soon after launch, Miller reached out to Uber to ask if his team could use the Uber Eats API. Uber said yes.
"Instead of a driver going to Chipotle to pick up burritos, they could go to a food bank and pick up meals," Miller said.
Since March 2020, Helping Hands has helped serve more than 535,000 meals to more than 53,000 families throughout the country. Helping Hands currently has dozens of food bank partner organizations in cities like Los Angeles, New York City, Santa Clara and others.
"It can work anywhere," Miller said. "And this is the beauty of why I reached out to Uber in the first place. If we can make it work with Uber, in theory, anywhere Uber operates, we can extend the same quality of service."
Initially, Helping Hands tried connecting directly with those in need, but the organization soon realized there was a discovery problem. People simply didn't know that Helping Hands existed as an option. Now, Helping Hands partners with food banks and pantries to provide last-mile food delivery services to their users. Miller considers Helping Hands to be an enterprise tech solution for food banks and food pantries.
There are two ways Helping Hands gets food to people — through a logistics partner such as Uber Eats, Lyft or AxleHire, and through volunteers.
As a nonprofit, Helping Hands has tinkered a bit with its operating model since the early days. At first, Uber covered the cost for all the trips, Miller said. Phase two entailed Helping Hands paying all the delivery charges but "that was also not sustainable because we didn't want to go from an operating budget of zero to $100 million as a nonprofit," he said.
Helping Hands has since landed on charging the food banks the cost of the delivery plus a 50-cent delivery transaction fee. Delivery workers do not get tipped in these transactions, but Miller said Helping Hands has negotiated a price with Uber, Lyft and AxleHire to ensure couriers "get the effective fare plus tip equivalent."
Helping Hands is currently entirely volunteer-run. That will likely change, however, with the new influx of $250,000 from Pivotal Ventures, founded by Melinda Gates. Pivotal Ventures CEO John Sage said the firm invested in Helping Hands because it sees the organization as a way to "help accelerate momentum where progress has stalled" on issues around food insecurity for vulnerable populations.
"Helping Hands Community is making innovative use of technology to tackle the food insecurity crisis and we believe in supporting innovative solutions that help improve the lives of Americans," Sage said in a statement.
With the funding, Helping Hands also plans to improve upon its product in order to increase its reliability for food banks. The goal is to provide a suite of technology tools to better help food banks serve their communities. Helping Hands also wants to increase access to the on-demand economy.
"The entire on-demand economy exists for one main reason," Miller said. "Which is that people value their time and are willing to pay a premium for a higher level of service to get their time back."
But that luxury isn't available to everyone, especially those with lower incomes. That's where Helping Hands hopes to come in.
"We're really excited about being able to provide this higher level of service to those impacted by food insecurity," Miller said. "And in a post-pandemic world, what is a better way of serving those who wrestle with food insecurity? We think that last mile is a huge way of doing this in a more equitable way."