While college students in the D.C. region might have a reputation of being affluent, a huge number of students both here and across the country deal with significant food security issues. Recognizing that, and also recognizing that nearly 40 percent of all food produced in the world is wasted, Last Call co-founder Erin McGeoy found an opportunity to help with two problems at once.
ABERMAN: Well, I loved learning about this. Tell everybody about how you came up with the idea for Last Call.
MCGEOY: I was inspired to start Last Call after working on the food waste team at the World Wildlife Fund, and just closely studying all the negative environmental implications of food waste, and what that means in terms of water, land, all the resources, and farmers’ time as well. And then, when I learned that 40 percent of all food produced is wasted, as an environmentalist, it made me really sad, and as a hungry collegiate student athlete, it made me really angry. So, I came out to George Washington University on a variety of scholarships and financial aid, and I played water polo there, and it was really difficult for me to justify buying three meals a day.
Food just came last, after all my expenses. After books, after rent, I really struggled to afford to buy three meals a day. So, I had different strategies that I would use, such as trying to survive off free food from university events, and I would go to sleep early so I only had to buy two meals, instead of three. And after weights, I would try to steal an extra protein bar as a meal replacement, or I would ask my teammates if they would give me one of theirs. So, when I started a Facebook group called Free food in Foggy Bottom, to post all my knowledge, it grew pretty significantly. I just thought it was going to be satirical at first, and it grew to 500 student users who were posting pretty regularly. And that’s when I first thought, you know, I’m not the only one that struggles with this.
And at a school like George Washington University, which has a very affluent reputation, everyone there wears Gucci, Canada Goose, eats at Whole Foods and Sweet Green pretty regularly, because we don’t have a dining hall, I felt pretty shameful that this was my situation, and my reality. And I thought no one else struggled with this like I did. But the validation of that Facebook group, and then a recent report published by the GW Hatchet, showed that 40 percent of GW students are food insecure, which can be defined as not being able to access enough affordable meals to live a functional lifestyle. So basically, not being able to eat enough to study and live. So, that was really shocking to me, and I wanted to start a business that bridged these two social inefficiencies.
ABERMAN: I know that many people now in our community talk about how expensive education is, but I don’t think they really focus on the fact that scholarships and things like that don’t address just the incidentals of human life. Tell me a bit about how Last Call works.
MCGEOY: If restaurants have any meals that didn’t sell at full price during normal business hours, they can discount it, and basically just cover the cost of the meal. So, with Founding Farmers, if they have five sides of mac and cheese or something, they can post that on the Last Call platform for three dollars, which is what their mac and cheese is selling for, or they sell an entree for five dollars, which is usually a protein and vegetables. So, fried chicken and grilled veggies. And when they take a photo, they post the meal to the platform, with the pickup window, the discounted price, and then eat and or to go, and we send out a text and an email to college students saying: Last Call, five dollar Founding Farmers meals, pick up from ten to eleven thirty a.m., shop here. And then they can shop the offerings that are available on our website, lastcallforfood.com, and once they purchase the meal, then they head to the restaurant during the designated pickup window, and they essentially rescue a meal, for five dollars or less.
That may have been going to the trash otherwise, so it’s a really great way for students to access more affordable meal options, and to have that in-between, between food pantry and food stamps, which carries unfortunate negative stigmas associated with poverty, and then paying full price for a meal. So, what I was envisioning with Last Call was that we would empower college students to access these more affordable meals, and not have to feel shame about it. You know, branding it as thrifty instead of poor, and making it a fun thing. And on the restaurant side, it’s really great, because we provide that financial incentive for restaurants to reduce their food waste. We help restaurants sell out instead of throw out, and driving traffic to them in off-peak hours, and exposing them to new customer segments that they may have not otherwise reached, is a huge value for them.
ABERMAN: I think it’s tremendous. It’s also a great example of how you can do something that’s entrepreneurially relevant, but also solves a big social problem. This sounds like a concept that could really grow, and solve problems for a lot of people. What is your vision for what you want to accomplish over the next year or two with this business?
MCGEOY: In the next year, I would love to expand to all of the D.C. college campuses, and begin expanding to D.C. neighborhoods. Get more restaurants on the platform, as well as grocery stores. We don’t have a grocery store yet. I think that would be really interesting. And we’re launching a crowdfunding campaign next month, with an accompanying promotional video. And through that, I want to highlight the stories of students who struggle with hunger, and show their faces, and show people that this is a real issue. Because recent reports by The New York Times have the statistics that show half of college students surveyed struggle to afford meals, but that’s just statistics. You know, seeing the face of someone like me, for example, that you wouldn’t expect to have to deal with these kind of problems, and hearing what they need to do to feed themselves, and their journey to basically survive, and go to school, is another huge vision I have to spark a national conversation.
ABERMAN: Erin, I understand you recently won an award to help you get this business moving further.
MCGEOY: Yes. So, we recently won 45,000 dollars through GW’s New Venture Competition, which is super exciting for us, because we launched Last Call on a WordPress website with less than three thousand dollars. So, to be able to have these funds, I’m really excited to see where it takes us. We’re going to be building out our technology so it’s more customized, automated, has more features that users are asking for, as well as be able to reach more users at different campuses.
So we didn’t make it past the semifinals of this competition last year, and that kind of got me thinking, is this a bad idea? Should we give up? No! This is a damn good idea, and we need to work as hard as we can so that we can win it all the next year around, which is exactly what we did. So, we won best social track, best women’s venture, because my co-founder is a woman as well, most innovative food and beverage industry venture, and audience choice award.
ABERMAN: And it’s a great cause. Erin McGeoy, Thanks for joining us.