Fighting food waste

 By RP Siegel

Millions of people are going hungry in all parts of the world. According to the UN World Food Programme, some 795 million people, or about one in nine people, do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. Given this, it is unconscionable to see how much food goes to waste. By some estimates, as much as 40% of all the food produced in America is wasted. Often this happens because supply and demand are not well matched, particularly for food with limited shelf life. Fortunately a number of organizations have developed solutions, based on digital technology, that are beginning to address this problem. Beyond these sad statistics, in fact, food waste also has ramifications in both the energy and water sectors, which are, in themselves, areas of critical concern…

The food industry does a tremendous job of feeding billions of people every day, yet there is a good deal of waste in the process. It is estimated that in the US alone, 40% of all food produced  is ultimately wasted. This is tragic considering the estimated 795 million people in the world who go hungry every day. Close to half of all deaths (45%) in children under 5, are caused by poor nutrition. Beyond these sad statistics, food waste also has ramifications in both the energy and water sectors, which are, in themselves, areas of critical concern.

There are reasons for this, of course. Fresh food, like fruits and vegetables are fragile and can be easily damaged in handing. A great deal of food falls between the boundaries of what looks beautiful and what is nourishing. Many foods also have limited shelf lives, which means they have to be used quickly before they spoil. This can be difficult to achieve especially when supply chains are long and complex. In current practice, losses occur at every step including: farming, packing, processing, distribution, retail, household and disposal. As wasted food decomposes in landfills, it generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas, exacerbating yet another serious issue. The problem is described in detail in a recent video series called Wasted, presented by the Yale Environment 360 program.

The National Consumer League offers a number of suggestions including eliminating buy-one-get-one-free type offers by retailers, which encourage over-consumption, and improved expiration date labeling practices that often lead to unnecessary waste. In most cases, the date on the label indicates peak freshness rather than last safe date for use. Public awareness campaigns, like the US Food Waste Challenge, co-sponsored by the EPA and the USDA, can have a big impact. The initiative has set a goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030.

The big waste

Some of the more interesting solutions involve the creative use of technology. Information technology can significantly improve the situation by tracking food at several steps along its circuitous path from farm to table. It can connect supplies more directly to demand, leaving less to chance, and not only reduce waste, but also help to feed the hungry in the process.

Food that is perfectly edible is often rejected at the retail level because of minor cosmetic defects or even if it is simply the wrong size. Another reason food is rejected is because the retailer still hasn’t sold what he has bought previously. Truckers often find themselves with a load of food that has been rejected. Their instructions under these circumstances are typically to “get rid of it.” They need to quickly empty their truck to get another load, as that’s how they make their living.

That’s the impetus behind Food Cowboy, a “food rescue program” that is featured in Wasted. The company was founded by Roger Gordon, a lawyer and former caterer; his brother Richard, a long-haul produce trucker; and Barbara Cohen, Ph.D., the author of the USDA’s Community Food Security Assessment Toolkit. Food Cowboy focuses specifically on “the thousands of refused deliveries of all types and sizes that become available without notice at all hours every day in the supply chain,” says Roger Gordon, the organization’s co-founder. The food industry spends $13 billion every year to dispose of this unwanted food. Food banks and other non-profits could intercept a great deal of this food if they updated their logistics. But that costs money that too often isn’t available. Food Cowboy provides tools and services that help to fill that gap. Basically, they “provide mobile technology to safely route surplus food from wholesalers and restaurants to food banks and soup kitchens instead of to landfills,” according to its website.

Food Cowboy’s mobile app allows a network of food donors, charitable organizations needing food, and truckers to connect supply with demand in real time. Truckers enters in what they have and where they are, and the app shows where they can bring the food. As they continue to grow, the company is setting its sights on the “Endgame for Food Waste” which they say can be achieved with a joint effort among all the stakeholders as well as policymakers.

Copia (formerly Feeding Forward) is a Public Benefit Corporation that operates in a manner similar to Food Cowboy, without the emphasis on truckers. The program, which is currently active in eight northern California cities, provides an app to anyone interested. If you have excess food that you would like to donate, you simply use the app to take a picture of the donation and then schedule a pickup. A “food hero” will come and rescue the food. The app also allows you to keep track of your donations, and measure your impact. Much of the food comes from restaurants and food service facilities. To date, the program has recovered 830,000 pounds of food, providing meals to 691,000 people, for a total business savings of $4.6 million. Providing jobs as drivers to former recipients, also helps to break the cycle of poverty.

The program began when CEO and Founder Komal Ahmad, encountered a homeless veteran, and instead of giving him money, she took him to lunch. Now, according to Ahmad, the age of instant gratification has come to the world of doing good.

Creative applications of technology such as these can make a big difference in a world dealing with overabundance and scarcity at the same time.


SEE MORE: Energy from supermarket waste by Benjamin Plackett

The Royal Horticultural Society's 2015 Harvest Festival Show

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.