FOOD SUPPLY-CHAIN TRIAGE
How smartphones can help stop food waste
by Claire Thompson / 11 Mar 2013
Imagine if every time you ordered a pizza, you opened the box, removed four or five grease-dripping slices — loaded with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, the works — and tossed them in the trash. That, in effect, is what Americans as a group do every day: From farm to table, we waste an estimated 40 percent of all the food produced in this country. Meanwhile, 50 million people in the United States don’t know where their next meal is coming from. We all deserve some of the credit for this waste — from farmers to grocers to you and me letting our leftovers grow mold in the fridge. But now, a bunch of smart people are harnessing mobile technology to cut down on the amount of food that ends up in the dumpster — and get more of it to people in need. “People in the food industry know how much food they waste, and they don’t like it at all,” says Roger Gordon, co-founder of one such new platform, Food Cowboy. He found this out from his brother, Richard, a truck driver who often hauls produce and wanted to do something with the loads of rejected, or “kicked,” fruits and veggies he ends up with about once a week. “When it’s kicked for cosmetic reasons — the eggplant has the wrong barcode, the eggplant’s not straight enough — and he’s told to throw it away, he’s called me,” Gordon says. He’d work the phone and the web to find a food bank near Richard’s route that could accept the unwanted produce, sparing it from being tossed. “We finally got smart and figured out, if these different apps [like Yelp] can help you find a place to buy food to eat, they can help you find a place to take food for other people to eat,” says Gordon. Food Cowboy, still in beta, works with two large trucking companies and about 20 local charities along the East Coast’s I-95 corridor. If, for example, a pallet of cherry tomatoes falls over and the shipment is rejected, the trucking company sends an alert that allows Food Cowboy to query its nonprofit partners along the truck’s route: “Who can handle 40 crates of cherry tomatoes?” The platform accomplishes what used to be a time-consuming search almost instantly, making it much more likely that the orphaned tomatoes will find a home. “Think of it as an air traffic controller for organic matter,” Gordon says. “If you’re a food charity, you’ve got the logistics ability of anybody else in the food chain now.” (All food donors are protected from any liability concerns by the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which means if they donate in good faith and someone still gets sick, they can’t be sued.)
Food Cowboy tackles the waste problem at the distributor level; another platform, called Zero Percent, targets retail food waste — you know, like those huge bags of day-old bagels you’d normally have to dive into a dumpster to find. It works by sending out email and text alerts to a pool of volunteers from nonprofit groups when extra food becomes available. “If they happen to be driving by or have an hour that day, they can pick up the food,” explains founder Rajesh Karmani. Zero Percent rolled out a year ago in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., and has since expanded to the Denver and Phoenix areas. It’s successfully donated almost 70,000 pounds of food so far. Karmani and his team hope to expand across the country before long. Jonathan Bloom, author of the 2011 book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of its Food, says working with distributors and stores helps, but “if you’re looking for the largest source of unused food in America, we need to look no further than farms.” Buyers often reject fruits and vegetables that are not the ideal shape, size, or color, believing that customers will only buy perfect-looking produce. Consequently, farmers “do what anyone in their right mind with a riskier-than-average business would do — they plant a little extra for insurance,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Dana Gunders. “One grower estimated overplanting about 10 percent on a regular basis.” Crops that don’t stack up to traditional distributors’ impossibly precise standards — up to 30 percent of a given farmer’s harvest, according to an NRDC study — are simply plowed under.
Bay Area company FoodStar has found a way to target this most-wasteful weak link in the food chain. When farmers have produce that can’t compete in the industry beauty contest, “we’re able to buy that at very low prices, bring it into retail supermarkets, and offer it at extreme-value discount pricing,” explains company partner Stuart Rudick. FoodStar also works with grocery-store produce departments to cut down on in-store waste. “For example, they’ve got three cartons of roma tomatoes, and there’s probably only two days before they start getting soft,” Rudick says. “We will work with them and schedule a flash sale inside their store.” FoodStar sends out text alerts to shoppers in the area, letting them know that roma tomatoes are, say, 50 percent off for a limited time. It’s the Bon Marché approach to grocery shopping. FoodStar is piloting the program at Bay-Area chain Andronico’s. Once the system is in place, Rudick says the company hopes to expand to other retailers — particularly ones serving low-income communities where affordable, nutritious food is scarce. Former Trader Joe’s executive Doug Rauch hopes to launch a similar program — the Urban Food Initiative — that would take the about-to-expire food the store can’t sell and use it to make healthy but cheap ready-to-eat meals for sale in food-insecure areas — “basically [competing] with fast food,” Bloom explains.
It’s tempting to view FoodStar and the Urban Food Initiative as continuations of the age-old tradition of dumping inferior products on the poor. “That sentiment is a real barrier to putting this perfectly edible nutritious food to use,” Bloom says; after all, this is food that should never have been considered “inferior” in the first place. Which brings us to the real root of the problem: us, the consumers, who somewhere along the line started believing any apple that’s not cartoon-round isn’t worth eating. “Supermarket people say they would be happy to lower their standards if shoppers were to buy those things,” Bloom says. So maybe solving our food-waste problem starts with convincing all the snobby shoppers out there that a crooked eggplant tastes just as good as a symmetrical one. (In fact, sometimes the funny fruit is actually superior — just compare an heirloom tomato to a hothouse one.) And if we knew how many of our neighbors went hungry, we might be less likely to forgo the to-go box — or even better, we might ask the restaurant if it’s heard of Zero Percent. “If people don’t know this is important, why are they going to sign up and make the effort?” says Dana Frasz, executive director of Food Shift, a group that works to educate people about food waste. Bloom, for his part, believes it all starts with more direct involvement in the food chain — growing our own food, buying directly from farmers, or simply just cooking more. “The more connected we are to our food, the more appreciative we are, and the less likely we are to waste it.” After all, no one wants to see a meal they’ve slaved over go to waste. So take my Depression-raised grandma’s advice and become a member of the clean plate club. And spread the message far and wide that with produce — as with people — it’s inner beauty that counts.
by Beth Buczynski / 08/2012
Brace yourself for a mind-boggling statistic. Ready? In 2010, the United States wasted 33 million tons of food. According to the EPA, food waste accounted for almost 14 percent of the total municipal solid waste stream, less than three percent of which was recovered and recycled in 2010. The real tragedy is that there are millions of people going hungry in the U.S. and around the world. Finding a way to reduce this staggering waste is key to stamping out hunger once and for all. A group of students at Arizona State University are convinced that the solution lies in connecting those with extra food to those who need the food before it hits the dumpster. Not willing to wait for someone else to devise the solution, Ramya Baratam, Steven Hernandez, Katelyn Keberle, Eric Lehnhardt, Loni Amundson, and Jake Irvin created a social media-powered app that could do just that. FlashFood is a mobile food recovery network, powered by social media, that feeds the hungry by collecting excess food from restaurants, caterers, and conventions, and delivering it to nearby community centers. If a restaurant or bakery manager has excess food, he or she can use the FlashFood app to instantly tell a local community organization that they wish to donate it. That organization can then use the app to coordinate pick up of the food and instantly alert food recipients of an upcoming donation at a nearby community center. “One in five children in America goes to bed hungry every night, and FlashFood’s home state of Arizona has the third highest rate of child food insecurity in America,” write the students on the FlashFood blog. “Yet one third of the available food in the U.S. is wasted. Our team believes that we can do better.” Microsoft must agree, because although the innovative project is still in the pilot stage it won the United States’ Imagine Cup and the project’s been accepted into an entrepreneurship incubator run by ASU. The team hopes to have Flash Food fully functioning in Phoenix by 2013.
Food Waste in Supermarkets: Pursuing Perfection, Driving Waste
by Peter Lehner / October 5, 2012
[This post is part of the Wasteland series, featuring people, towns, businesses and industries finding innovative ways to cut waste, boost efficiency and save money, time and resources.]
Say you have a melon in your fridge. And you find a soft spot on that melon, about the size of a nickel. Do you waste the whole melon? Of course not–you chop it up and throw away only the part that’s bad. Now, suppose you see that melon in the grocery store, with a little soft spot on it. Are you going to buy that melon? Probably not. If you’re a store manager, do you want unsellable produce like that out on the floor? No way. So that melon–all 10 pounds of it–gets tossed in the trash. Wasted. Years ago, a supermarket would have chopped up the good parts of the melon and sold it as cut fruit in the deli department. But not today. Food preparation is done off-site, which allows stores to reduce staff size and labor costs, but also increases waste. Bruised fruit gets thrown away instead of being cut and resold. (Whole Foods, which employs plenty of labor, is the exception to this trend.) Food waste in supermarkets is a complex issue, with roots not only in how stores conduct business, but also in what we, as customers, have come to expect from our food. Tackling this issue means empowering growers and consumers, finding new business strategies for selling food instead of wasting it, developing new technologies to keep food fresh, and creating consumer-friendly labeling and packaging that helps keep good food out of the trash heap.
Smart In-Store Solutions
Concerns about offering fresh product spurs most stores to pull items off shelves two or three days before the sell-by dates–despite the fact that these dates generally do not indicate food safety. On average, each supermarket throws away about $2,300 worth of food this way every day, according to one industry consultant. Bargain shelves are one way for stores to make sure food gets to the cash register instead of the dumpster. When I lived in California, I shopped at a grocery store called Berkeley Bowl, where they have a $0.99 bargain shelf for produce that is slightly damaged or nearing expiration. The store estimates it sells $1,500 worth of produce each day off this shelf. An orchard near me in New York sells “utility bags” of apples for about half-price, with apples that are so very slightly damaged that it makes no difference to me. I’ve not seen this approach in any New York City supermarket. In the U.K., where the government is running a national campaign to reduce food waste, some major retailers are testing out an ethylene-absorbing strip–ethylene is the gas that some fruits release as they ripen–to prolong the shelf-life of produce. They estimate the strips could save 1.6 million packs of tomatoes, 350,000 packs of avocados, and 40,000 packs of strawberries each year. Sainsbury, a British supermarket chain, recently introduced labels that encourage consumers to use or freeze food by its use-by date instead of throwing it away, saving an estimated 800,000 metric tons of food each year. The U.K. government recently issued new guidance on “sell by,” “best by,” and “use by” labeling to help reduce consumer confusion. We could use more labeling guidance on this side of the pond.
New Business Models
Farmer’s markets play an important role, too, in reducing food waste and empowering growers, who are beholden to the demands of a few powerful retailers. “As a retailer, my standard for what is allowable to show to the consumer is so high that perfectly edible produce is never going to make it out of the field,” says José Alvarez, the former CEO of Stop and Shop/Giant Landover. “This has a corrupting influence throughout the system.” The nonprofit Feeding America estimates that more than 6 billion pounds of produce goes unharvested or unsold every year. There are many reasons for this, but retailers play a big role because of their demands for physical perfection (which are ultimately driven by us consumers not buying that melon with a spot on it), and because farmers often overplant to ensure they can meet a retailer’s requirements–otherwise they risk losing the business. At a farmers’ market, growers can find customers who might be willing to buy the extra food, or the imperfect but delicious apples that would never make it to the grocery store shelf. Some of this extra produce might also make its way to food banks, or even to a new kind of retail store. Grocery Outlet, a $960 million business, sells mostly overruns and closeouts, including fresh produce, in its 148 stores. Doug Rauch, a former president of Trader Joe’s, is developing a new store that will source overruns, grocery items near or past expiration, and “seconds” from growers–physically imperfect, but still perfectly tasty and nutritious food. He plans to open a chain of affordable stores in food deserts, where communities lack access to fresh food, starting this winter.
Empowering Growers and Consumers Can Reduce Waste
Retailers wield enormous power in our food system, because they influence consumer behavior on one end, and supplier behavior on the other. But the balance of power might change in the coming years, Alvarez predicts, and a handful of big retailers might no longer have an outsized–and wasteful– influence on how food is grown and sold in this country. As global demand for food rises, and as the internet and improved shipping technologies give growers access to new markets, growers may no longer have to bow to the demands of a small group of powerful buyers. Empowered growers, smart retailers, and educated consumers can encourage the building of transparency and trust throughout our food supply chain. Working together, we can reduce food waste and create a safer, healthier food supply for all Americans.
FARM to TABLE
From farm to table, we’re losing tons of food
by Susie Cagle / 14 Dec 2012
Forty percent of the food we grow in the U.S. is wasted somewhere between the farm, the table, and the garbage can. There’s the stuff Americans allow to rot in their fridges (though I know you dear and conscientious readers would never do that), but there’s also tons of food lost on the farm and in the packaging process. A new study from the Natural Resources Defense Council surveyed crop waste at farms in California’s Central Valley. From NRDC’s Switchboard blog:
Results are by no means conclusive due to the limited data set, but they do offer an anecdotal snapshot of the extent of losses that occur. They found that “shrink,” another word for lost product, could be as low as 1 percent for the crops which were studied and, depending on weather and market conditions of a particular year, as high as 30 percent. Losses for plums and nectarines were on the high side; head lettuce and broccoli losses (at least where the farmer was selling florets separately) were relatively low. This can translate to a lot of food. If just 5 percent of the U.S. broccoli production is not harvested, over 90 million pounds of broccoli go uneaten. That would be enough to feed every child that participates in the National School Lunch Program over 11 4-ounce servings of broccoli. It also translates to a lot of resources used for naught. For example, if just 5 percent of broccoli grown in Monterey County, California (producer of 40 percent of U.S. broccoli) is not harvested, that represents the wasted use of 1.6 billion gallons of water and 450,000 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer (a contributor to global warming and water pollution). And let’s not forget about the energy, pesticides, land, and other resources that went into growing that food.
This amount of crop shrinkage is staggering. And to some degree it’s our own damn fault for picking only the prettiest produce at the store — the uglies never even make it to the shelves. The NRDC also points to other factors: overplanting in an attempt to hedge against pests or weather but that can end up costing more than a loss might have; shortages of skilled farm labor; spoilage that prevents farms from donating unsellable stuff; and the horrors of the “spot market” …
… where products are traded for immediate delivery without forward contracts. Prices vary significantly in this market, and growers sometimes face a tough decision just prior to the harvest window. Low spot prices can mean that the costs of harvesting a crop and getting it to market outweigh the revenue from its sale. When this is the case, a grower may decide to leave entire fields of harvest-ready product unharvested. These fields are known as “walk-bys” in the industry, and are particularly prevalent in years of high supply.
Yes, who said capitalism wasn’t moral? Food waste is hardly an American problem. The European Union is set on reducing its own food waste, which is currently 89 million tons annually. A new project called FUSIONS — Food Use Social Innovations by Optimising Waste Strategies — aims to reduce E.U. food waste by 50 percent by 2025. In the U.K., government officials are shockingly indignant about food waste. From The Independent:
Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, deplored the amount of food we waste in a speech to the Federation of Women’s Institutes last week. He singled out the “cult of perfection” that leaves no room in our supermarkets for ugly produce, but also said the following about the Nigellas and Jamies of this world. “Cookbooks in the 1970s and 1980s always have had chapters on using up scraps and leftovers. But this stopped in the 1990s. That is a little tiny area where you can change culture. Lots of food can be rehashed together and it is perfectly good.”
How can we shift the tide stateside? NRDC points to needed policy and behavior changes (the prettiest apple doesn’t necessarily taste better than the homely one). There’s hope, too, in gleaners, which is a much more dignified term than “freegans.” Maybe that’s because they come from France.
TEACH a GIRL to FISH
Reduce food waste dramatically with simple acts, says UN
by Rebecca Smithers / 22 January 2013
Small but simple actions by consumers and food retailers could dramatically cut the 1.3bn tonnes of food lost or wasted across the world each year, according to an unprecedented global campaign launched on Tuesday. Requesting smaller portions at restaurants, freezing leftovers and donating to food banks can help make a difference, says the UN-led Think, Eat, Save: Reduce Your Foodprint campaign, while retailers and supermarkets should be carrying out audits and working more closely with their suppliers to reduce waste. Worldwide, it is estimated that about one-third of all food produced – worth around $1 trillion – gets lost or wasted in production and consumption systems, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).Arecent report from the UK’s Institute of Mechanical Engineers put the figure higher, warning that as as much as half of all the food produced in the world – equivalent to 2bn tonnes – ends up as waste every year.
UN under-secretary-general and Unep executive director, Achim Steiner, said: “In a world of 7 billion people, set to grow to 9 billion by 2050, wasting food makes no sense – economically, environmentally and ethically.” José Graziano da Silva, FAO director-general, added: “Together, we can reverse this unacceptable trend and improve lives. In industrialised regions, almost half of the total food squandered, around 300m tonnes annually, occurs because producers, retailers and consumers discard food that is still fit for consumption. This is more than the total net food production of sub-Saharan Africa, and would be sufficient to feed the estimated 870 million people hungry in the world.” According to the FAO, 95% of food waste in developing countries are unintentional losses at early stages of the food supply chain, caused by financial, managerial and technical limitations in harvesting techniques; storage and cooling facilities in difficult climatic conditions; infrastructure; packaging and marketing systems. But in the developed world, the end of the chain is far more significant. At the food manufacturing and retail level, large quantities of food are wasted because of inefficient practices, quality standards that over-emphasise appearance, confusion over date labels and consumers being quick to throw away edible food due to over-buying, inappropriate storage and preparing meals that are too large. Per capita waste by consumers is between 95kg and 115kg a year in Europe and North America/Oceania, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-eastern Asia each throw away 6kg to 11kg a year. According to the UK waste body Wwap, the average UK family could save up to £680 a year and the UK hospitality sector £724m a year by tackling food waste.