“There were times in my life where I would open the fridge and there would be nothing,” Jonathan Kumar said. “You never really forget what that’s like.”
Kumar is the founder of Food Circles, an app that connects citizens, businesses, nonprofits and those in need to address hunger in the community through a “Buy One, Feed One” model. Through the Food Circles website or app, diners can purchase food vouchers for local restaurants and 100% of their purchase is donated to feed the hungry, or is put towards the nonprofit of their choice.
Growing up on food stamps left an indelible impression on Kumar. As a student at the University of Michigan, he spoke of feeling guilt over spending money dining out with his friends.
“It is hard spending $12 a burger, when you know just how far that $12 will go in groceries,” Kumar said.
Kumar developed the idea for Food Circles in 2011 at a startup weekend in Ann Arbor and caught the attention of Momentum, a now defunct venture firm headed by Amway heir Rick Devos. The Momentum program offered Kumar a $20,000 investment to move Food Circles to Grand Rapids and develop the idea further. Shortly after Kumar and his team moved to Grand Rapids, Momentum pulled the funding. Feeling that Grand Rapids was the perfect testing ground for their model, Food Circles continued on.
“There is a very good restaurant scene downtown,” said Kumar. “Restaurants that are open to new things and are progressive with technology. They were very patient with us developing the program for how to best serve the restaurants and diners.”
Food Circles has 20 participating restaurants in the Grand Rapids area and has helped feed 7,000 people since launching in 2013. The program includes popular restaurants such as The B.O.B., San Chez Bistro, Stella’s Lounge and Hop Cat.
“It is doing good in the community,” said Operations Manager of participating restaurant Flat Lander’s Bar and Grill, Mark Stankus. “It has also brought exposure to people that otherwise wouldn’t have come into eat here.”
The Heartside Gleaning Initiative (HGI)–a nonprofit program that seeks to bring nutritious food into the Heartside Neighborhood where over 75% of the population experiences hunger and food deprivation–partnered with Food Circles in 2015.
“They have really helped to maintain and expand our outreach,” says the HGI’s director and chairman Lisa Sisson.
Today, the initiative has gleaned over 36,000 pounds of food to feed the community.
Grand Rapids has served as a successful guinea pig for what Kumar intends to develop into a nationally packaged platform that cities will be able to apply on their own. He is currently implementing Food Circles in Seattle.