Child psychiatrist Vero Buschmann says she was looking for a way to get rid of leftovers without having to throw them away. At the same time, the Berlin resident wanted to meet new people.
She found a nonprofit website in Germany that allows her to do both. On a recent evening, her doorbell rings and she buzzes Franzi Zimmerman in to her fifth-floor apartment.
"I have a whole bunch of baked goods I just picked up from the baker," Buschmann tells her 29-year-old guest. "You can take as much as you want!" She also offers some soup and chutney, made from her leftover produce.
Zimmerman laughs and replies: "Wow, that's really great. Homemade soup? It doesn't get better than that!"
Such exchanges between strangers are happening in more than 240 cities across Germany through Foodsharing.de (for English, click on the tiny British flag on the top left), a website that connects people who have free food to give away with people seeking those items.
Got leftovers from Saturday night's party? Post them. Need an egg for your cake? Find it.
Some 40 tons of food have been given away via the network since it began online 18 months ago. More than 41,000 people have signed up. The nonprofit website's creators say their goal is to prevent large amounts of produce, bread and other perishable food from being thrown away.
Food waste is not just a German problem, says website co-founder Valentin Thurn. He's a Cologne-based filmmaker whose documentary, Taste the Waste, lays out in jolting terms just how much food Europeans throw away each year – 90 million tons worth, to be exact. It's a phenomenon that costs the European economy more than $130 billion every year — up to half of fruits and vegetables picked at harvest time, he says.
Thurn says those facts spurred him into action, as did being raised by parents who grew up during the austere times of World War II and taught him the value of conservation.
He and several friends decided the "sharing economy" approach used by people to share or swap work space, cars and homes could work for their food-saving venture.
"With food, obviously there is a health risk associated, so we needed to establish some rules," Thurn says. He says the Web team worked with lawyers to ensure the network didn't violate any German or European regulations governing food.
As a result, it doesn't offer meats or other products that have "sell by" dates, concentrating instead on food items with "best before" labels.
There are no inspectors checking on food offered through the network, but consumers are encouraged to go online and rate the food they've received, Thurn says.
He adds: "And this is the most astonishing thing: We had complaints maybe about this person or that person not being so polite, but we never had any complaints about the quality of the food."
Users of the site also assume liability by signing a clause that says they won't sue the food providers, Buschmann says. "So it's just on your own responsibility and of course if it smells maybe weird or something, maybe better don't eat it."
The way the website works is simple: You sign up as a member and either list a "basket" with approved food items you have available for pick up or find a "basket" if you are looking for certain foods. Also, for anyone about to cook and find they are short on an ingredient or are looking for people to share any excess, there's a third, "food-sharing," option.
"We want to bring back this sharing idea into the modern world because food is not just a commodity," Thurn says. It "should be considered as something different, as the basis of our life."
He adds the service is free and any money needed to run the website and do advertising comes from grants and donations.
Thurn says the network is also working with volunteers who collect produce and baked goods from supermarkets and other outlets that would otherwise throw those perishables away.
At a Neukölln neighborhood bakery in Berlin, baker Ali Cengiz says he's happy to donate food to the network.
"We would have to throw this away if it weren't picked up and that would cost us money," Cengiz says. "And with this food sharing, we also have the opportunity to do something good."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Activists in Europe say, more than half the food available on the continent ends up in the trash. They say, it costs the economy there more than $130 billion a year. In Germany, the revelations have sparked a wave of popular movements aimed at curbing food waste. Among the most successful is a website called foodsharing.de. From Berlin, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: One of the food sharing Internet site's founders is Cologne filmmaker Valentin Thurn.
His documentary, called "Taste the Waste," lays out in jolting terms how much food Europeans throw away each year - 90 million tons worth, to be exact. That's enough to fill three million trucks stretched around the equator, according to the film. In addition, up to 50 percent of produce harvested at farms is thrown out, including tomatoes, the film says.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TASTE THE WASTE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The computer checks the color to make sure they're right. And if they're the wrong color, they get zipped off to the side and thrown away.
NELSON: Thurn says those statistics, as well as having parents who were hungry as children during World War II, led him on a mission with like-minded friends to try and stop so much food from being thrown away.
VALENTIN THURN: A lot of people ask for solutions, especially the younger ones in our team. They came up the idea. Well, everybody's talking about the sharing economy and they share everything. Why not food?
NELSON: This sharing or collaborative economy, which relies heavily on the Internet and makes available people's homes, cars and services among other things is a fast-growing trend around the globe. Filmmaker Thurn says applying that concept to thrown out food was an easy.
THURN: It was a little bit more tricky because food - obviously, there is a health risk associated, so we needed to establish some rules.
BLOCK: Thurn says after exhaustive work and consultation with lawyers, they created the nonprofit website called foodsharing.de 18 months ago. The concept is simple - connect individuals who have food that is still good, but they can no longer use, with people seeking food for their personal use. Thurn says donations and grants pay for the upkeep of the website and advertisement, but the work is done by volunteers. Various supermarkets and bakers are also linked to the network, providing edible goods those businesses would otherwise throw away. These days, more than 240 German cities and 41,000 people are part of foodsharing.de. Thurn says that in the first year alone, they had a million visitors to the Internet site. One food sharer on the site is Wero Buschmann, who lives in Berlin.
WERO BUSCHMANN: Hello, how are you? Hello. Hello. OK. (German spoken).
NELSON: The child psychiatrist greets customer Franzi Zimmerman at the door and tells her to come in. The doctor shows the 26-year-old the bread she's picked up from the baker, as well as soup and chutney she's prepared, to which Zimmerman replies, wow, homemade soup - that's great. There's nothing better.
FRANZI ZIMMERMAN: (German spoken).
NELSON: Zimmerman, who is vegan, says, she often uses the food sharing website.
ZIMMERMAN: I do many things, but I'm totally broke most of the time, so this is, like - this is a perfect opportunity to save money. And there's so much food wasted. Nobody's using it. That's why I tried to - yeah - to get most of my food out of the dumpster or to - from food sharing.
NELSON: Child psychiatrist Buschmann says, she likes the idea of a shared economy, which is also why she joined CouchSurfing.org, a group that links international travelers with people willing to share their homes for free. Buschmann says she loves foodsharing.de because it does something good for society, not to mention the wide range of people she gets to meet. And the doctor says, she finds the program more dignified than food banks in Germany, which require recipients to register and to line up to collect food.
BUSCHMANN: I know many people who just feel ashamed to do this because everyone can see that they're queuing for this food bank thing.
NELSON: Food Sharing cofounder Thurn agrees, adding they alternate days with the food banks on who gets the surplus from vendors. But he says, there are limits to the kinds of foods his network provides. Vegetables, bread and other items that list best before labels are allowed. Foods like meat, with sell by dates, are not.
THURN: We cannot make sure that the cooling chain has been without any gap, so we don't take it at all. And this way, we avoid, like, 99 percent of the risks.
NELSON: He adds that people are encouraged to use the website to rate the food they get and haven't gotten any complaints. The doctor, Buschmann, says, participants in foodsharing.de also assume the liability for what they give and receive.
BUSCHMANN: By signing in, you sign, also, an application that you will not sue the shop for whatever happens to you when you eat the food. So it's just on your own responsibility. And of course, if it smells maybe weird or something, maybe don't eat it.
NELSON: The food sharing website works with volunteers called food savers, who pick up wares from supermarkets and bakers, like Ali Cengiz.
ALI CENGIZ: (German spoken).
NELSON: The baker says, through this food sharing not only do we feel we are doing something good, but we save money because it costs to haul all thus stuff away as trash. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.