The Last-Mile Helpers

Illustration: DaVidRo

Jeff Miller’s sudden turn into the world of food delivery began with a CNN report early in the pandemic about an elderly couple too scared to enter a supermarket. Instead, they sat in their car for nearly an hour, until someone heard their cries and took their shopping list through a cracked window.

It hadn’t occurred to Miller, MBA ’07, that something so mundane could now be so terrifying. With some research, he began to realize the dilemma high-risk Americans were facing just to get food. “My eyes were wide open with how large this challenge was going to be for our country,” he recalls.

And so Miller, an entrepreneur and a tech investor, made some phone calls—first, to an old co-worker from his days at Uber: Pedram Keyani, MS ’03, a veteran of Google and Facebook, who started tinkering on some code.

‘My eyes were wide open with how large this challenge was going to be for our country.’

The goal was to hack together a simple app to enable volunteers to connect with people like the couple in the news. More than a year later, the effort has grown into an all-volunteer nonprofit called Helping Hands, whose mission is to connect food banks with the people who need their services. Last year, with support from more than 150 volunteers—in areas from coding to logistics to driving—Helping Hands assisted in delivering food to nearly 36,000 families across the country.

In pre-COVID-19 times, most people picked up their food-bank groceries in person, says Amy Kaiser, a director at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, one of about 20 organizations that work with Helping Hands. The pandemic created a surge in food insecurity, doubling the number of people using Second Harvest’s curbside pickup. But it also led to a spike in clients who couldn’t leave their homes. Second Harvest’s home delivery rolls grew from 750 households to around 5,000.

COVID-19 didn’t just increase the number of people stuck at home; it highlighted how many were already there.

That’s where the Helping Hands app has been crucial. The developers created a platform that integrates with courier apps such as Uber, AxleHire and Lyft, allowing the food bank to upload hundreds of addresses and dispatch paid drivers on optimized routes. It also guides volunteer drivers and records their drop-offs. “We couldn’t have responded without them,” Kaiser says.

Even after the pandemic, Kaiser expects deliveries to remain important. COVID-19 didn’t just increase the number of people stuck at home; it highlighted how many were already there.

“I don’t think food scarcity is going away,” says Keyani. “If we can build a proper kind of IT department for these food banks, we can make them more effective in their missions.”


Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at sscott3@stanford.edu.