Reward program helps diners feed the hungry

BOSTON -- An innovative new Boston startup leverages the power of reward and customer loyalty programs against the problem of poverty-induced hunger, and gives those who participate a new way to help the hungry.

Dan Napierski, founder of a local startup called Phfeast Inc., runs the company that makes free meals provided by local restaurants through customer loyalty programs available to families and young people who don't always know where they will get their next meal.

After Napierski attended a food drive for children's families who go to school with his son in Framingham, he saw a need to help.

"There are over 200,000 children in Massachusetts who are facing food insecurity," he said.

On his way home from the food drive, he thought about restaurants in the area that give away food through customer loyalty programs. He said he thought repeat customers at any restaurant must have a consistent means of feeding themselves and their families, so the potential free meals earned by repeat business could go to local food pantries.

"Seeing how many kids in Massachusetts are facing food insecurity, I just had this revelation that restaurants have the capacity to feed more people. They can't just give away free food to everyone, because they need to stay in business. But to the extent that they can give away free food through their loyalty program, why not give those free meals to people who could really use them?" he asked.

Using a Kickstarter campaign -- an internet platform to gather small-scale investment from interested people online -- and with help from the Venture Development Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston, he conceived and rolled out Phfeast to connect restaurants and food pantries on behalf of those in need.

Rather than simply gathering customer loyalty points to earn free meals at a restaurant for themselves, customers using Phfeast online or through the app can earn reward points to help feed children and families who frequent participating food pantries.

Unlike standard loyalty programs, customers using Phfeast build points in a pool rather than on an individual basis. If multiple customers participating in Phfeast eat at a participating restaurant, all the loyalty points they earn go towards a gift card or certificate that the owner provides to a participating food pantry paired with the restaurant. The pantry, in turn, provides the gift card to a client.

The model depends on local connections, and lets participants control which specific businesses and food pantries receive their support.

"I hope that Phfeast can take off and grow to be much larger, but it's always going to be really local," he said.

Two Archdiocese of Boston parishes are already participating through their food pantries, and Napierski hopes the program will take off from there into more parishes.

Mary Kulas, director of the food pantry at St. Bridget's Parish in Framingham, the food pantry is paired with the Foodie Cafe on Fountain Street.

"I think it's a great idea. We have a lot of people who come to our food pantry, and I think it would be really nice to be able to offer them a special night out. I'm sure most of them don't have the opportunity to go out to eat, and I just think that would make for a very special, meaningful event for some small family," she said.

Through the partnership between the cafe and the church, those participating in Phfeast can contribute to feeding the hungry at a shop they are familiar with simply by making purchases and checking in at the restaurant.

Susan Rutkowski, pastoral minister of social justice at the Paulist Center in Boston, said she sees the program as a way to extend dignity to the hungry. The Paulist Center is paired with the Chicken and Rice Guys -- a food truck that serves Boston.

"I think it's a very dignified way for people to be able to eat a healthy, hot meal. They don't need to stand in line at a soup kitchen to get a hot meal. They can walk up to a food vendor just like anyone would and order lunch, and offer their card, and receive their food, and go enjoy their meal in a dignified fashion," she said.