Approaching Food Waste from All Sides
New technology-enabled solutions are trying to match the scale of food recovery to the scale of industrial food distribution.
Carrots do not grow straight. Any gardener knows they twist around rocks and split into mutant bulbs. But farms sort out inconsistent vegetables before they reach the grocery store, and grocery stores stock uniform tomatoes, peaches, and bananas by sifting out anything a little soft, mislabeled, or ripe. Veggies that in a fridge say, “Better eat me soon,” in a grocery store say, “Discard me.”
The United States discards 40 million tons of food waste every year at a cost of $165 billion, adding to the price of groceries and wasting increasingly scarce resources. Experts estimate that America’s food waste uses 11 trillion gallons of irrigation water.
Despite 1.3 billion tons of global food waste, one in six Americans receives food assistance, and 49 million live in food insecure households. Fortunately, a new generation of social entrepreneurs is developing new business models that scale to address this massive inefficiency and waste in our food system from all angles, including food waste prevention and food rescue.
One example is the Food Recovery Network. In 2011, students at the University of Maryland in College Park decided to organize collection and redistribution of 150-200 pounds of food a day left over from dining halls and sports events. By May 2014, the network had recovered more than 400,000 pounds of food. The effort has spread to more than 90 colleges, and corporate grants are expanding the program.
There have always been small-scale efforts to recover food waste. Soup kitchen staff wake up at the crack of dawn to collect grocery store rejects, restaurant workers eat misfired chicken parmesan, farms send misshapen potatoes to the food pantry. But new technology-enabled solutions are trying to match the scale of recovery to the scale of industrial food distribution—chipping away at food waste on all levels with the hope that eventually very little food reaches the landfill. Here’s a look at several:
Many organizations and apps attempt to prevent waste upstream—at factories, farms, and restaurants. For example, the software Lean Path allows food workers to regularly record photos and weights of food waste, and then provides analytic results of patterns that they might fix. Some kitchens that use it have cut waste by as much as 80 percent.
Meanwhile, Germany’s Culinary Misfits and Britain’s Feeding the 5,000 initiatives encourage consumers to embrace “wonky” vegetables, potentially reducing the estimated 20-40 percent of produce that never even reaches grocery shelves.
Food rescue and food transformation are the two main strategies for redirecting superficially imperfect but perfectly nutritious food to hungry mouths. Spoiler Alert, an app created by two MIT business school graduates, serves as an online marketplace for the real-time exchange of local supply-and-demand information for excess, expiring, and spoiled food. Love Food, Hate Waste helps households manage cooking and better use leftovers, and LeftoverSwap is an online marketplace for leftovers that lets people share and swap food with neighbors.
Meanwhile, food transformation is like boiling roast chicken bones into soup stock. Rubies in the Rubble, a UK nonprofit, uses this strategy and makes surplus fruits into chutney—employing vulnerable people while preserving food. An initiative in Washington, D.C., Farm to Freezer, is attempting to cut into America’s 6 billion pounds of wasted produce by freezing excess. The organization sells some of the frozen foods to fund its operation and delivers the rest to shelters in winter, when produce is scarce.
For these programs to scale, they must operate at a very local level, like capillaries of the food circulation system. The modern focus on localism is not just because of a tough economy, but because local distribution is one of the last unmet challenges of a global supply chain.
Effective distribution of food requires the preservation of dignity. As with supermarkets and restaurants, food pantries and soup kitchens need to market goods to appeal to clients—low-income people rarely see themselves as a needy population that should eat surplus food so that the math of hunger works out. America faces an obesity problem in part because many struggle to afford healthy foods. For them to accept surplus vegetables, they need to view these foods as a cost-effective, convenient alternative to unhealthy diets.
One organization that is treating surplus as a product is The Daily Table, in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Founded by the former president of Trader Joe’s Doug Rauch, it intends to cook surplus food into healthy meals that compete with fast food.
We can also look to Europe for distribution models; its home to more than 1,000 social supermarkets, or members-only grocery stores that offer radically discounted food. Members can save up to 70 percent on food that grocers have rejected due to mislabeling, damaged packaging, or nearing expiration dates.
These programs do not necessarily complement each other—the more waste Lean Path reduces in restaurants and dining halls, the less produce is available for the Food Recovery Network to donate to The Daily Table. The ecosystem will be dynamic and require new solutions along the way; like the challenges of misfit carrots or people failed by standard distribution, these new models will need individual attention.
But theoretically, the United States discards enough food to feed the hungry at home and beyond. We hope this developing ecosystem of waste reduction will instead get that food to those who need it.