Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

When we come across a problem that seems insurmountable, it’s easy to hold up technology as a cure-all.

That seems to be the case with food waste. Recently Eater published a story stating “Food Waste is the Next Great Gold Rush,” referencing Bloomberg’s post about how food waste startups raised more than $125 million in the first 10 months of 2018.

Neither of these pieces made the direct claim that tech will drastically reduce food waste; only that the fight against waste is has been getting a lot of investment of late. However, it got me thinking: many others have argued that tech could cut down on food waste — including ourselves. Is tech the key to solving our overwhelming food waste problem, where we throw out one-third of all food globally?

If only. Unfortunately, I think that framing technology as a panacea for our waste is overly simplistic. While there’s no question that the fight against food waste is a moneysaving opportunity for growers, distributors, and retailers, startups are mostly tackling waste upstream in the food system — when in fact we need serious help reducing food waste at home.

That’s not to say that companies fighting food waste before it gets to our kitchen aren’t doing important work. Many are leveraging technology to reduce wastage up and down the supply chain, from:

Harvest and Distribution

  • Agshift uses deep learning to inspect nuts and seafood and help establish across-the-board food ratings, which can help the supply chain route food more efficiently.
  • Full Harvest is a B2B marketplace that sells imperfect produce to companies like juicers that accept “ugly” fruits and vegetables.
  • Apeel makes an edible coating that doubles the shelf life of produce like avocados and citrus.
  • Spoiler Alert helps large food manufacturers and distributors better manage their inventory to optimize purchasing.

Grocery

  • Wasteless uses dynamic price tags at grocery stores to help incentivize the sales of soon-to-expire produce.
  • Walmart has its Eden Technology, which tracks its produce from farm to shelf so managers can divert older fruits and vegetables to closer retail locations.
  • Afresh uses AI to help grocery managers optimize all fresh food stocking.

Restaurant

  • Leanpath works with high-volume kitchens to help them track when and why they waste food so they can reduce their waste.
  • Similarly, in the U.K., Winnow helps restaurant track food waste so they can figure out ways to eliminate it.
  • Karma works with restaurants in the U.K. and Sweden to sell prepared meals at drastically reduced prices at the end of the day after the restaurant closes.
  • In the same vein, Too Good To Go is an app-based marketplace for surplus food.

Catering

  • Goodr uses blockchain to track surplus food that it redistributes from corporations to locals struggling with hunger.
  • Copia helps companies that make large amounts of food manage their inventories and find non-profits to which to donate excess food.

There are also a smattering of startups that are upcycling food waste products, turning them into everything from insulation to cookies to beer.

Yeah, that’s a lot of companies fighting food waste. But here comes the “but”…

Comparatively few companies are effectively tackling food waste at home. And unfortunately, that’s where most of the waste occurs. In fact, according to ReFed, 43 percent of all food waste happens in the home.

Yes, some companies are coming out with products and services aimed at cutting down on the amount of food we toss in the trash. Services like meal kits claim they’ll reduce waste by sending you exactly what you need to cook a recipe: no more, no less. However, sometimes people order a meal kit too far in advance and their plans change, so they have to throw it away. Meal kits also create a different kind of waste: packaging waste (though this is changing thanks to in-retail meal kits, which are the fastest-growing sector of the meal kit industry).

There are also tech startups working to cut down on home food waste by helping you keep better tabs on your fresh food. Ovie makes LED-lit tags that track your food and give you a heads-up when you need to hurry up and eat it. Similarly, Silo has a smart kitchen storage/vacuum seal system that keeps track of food freshness and also helps your food last longer.

But not everyone is going to buy these food-tracking devices, and even if they do, it’s no guarantee that they’ll actually eat those leftovers that have been lingering in the fridge for the past five days.

Bottom line: What we need is a behavioral shift. The American culture right now is one of abundance. Our fridges and pantries have to be constantly full. With the rise of grocery e-commerce and mega-stores that force you to buy in bulk (sorry, Costco, love you), it’s easier than ever to stock up on large amounts of fresh food. And unless you’re really good at buying exactly what you need or are feeding a hungry family, this mentality will inevitably lead to you throwing at least some of your food away.

That “some” can add up to quite a lot. Twenty percent of food Americans buy is never eaten. The National Defense Resources Fund found that Americans throw out more than 400 pounds of food per person per year, which can equate to up to $2,200 per household.To make any sort of concrete dent in our massive food waste problem people have to be okay with buying things when they need them — and buying less. We also have to be better about making use of all parts of the food we buy, from broccoli stalks to chicken bones.

Easier said than done, I know. Especially if you live in a more remote area where you don’t have the luxury of being able to swing past a grocery store on your way home from work. But I truly think tech is just a band-aid to paste over our food waste problem — albeit a flashy one. The real solution is a lot less sexy, and will be a lot harder to achieve.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Don’t forget goMkt (goMkt.com)! Similar to Karma and Too Good To Go in helping restaurants sell surplus food before they close, at discounted prices, but based in NYC!

  2. Dear Catherine,

    We want to challenge some of the ideas expressed in the above article re food techs ability to effectively fight food waste on consumer level.

    1.You state that “startups are mostly tackling waste upstream in the food system — when in fact we need serious help reducing food waste at home.” While there are certainly many startups out there tackling the rest of the supply chain, https://cozzo.app/ is a tech project entirely devoted to preventing food waste at home. You can read more about the story here https://cozzo.app/go/cmcozzo/ The main purpose of CoZZo is to relief and assist consumers through all the various stages of food management, (from planning, provisioning, storage, to preparation and consumption), so as to help households use the food they provision before it expires. CozZo combines smart shopping assistance, complete household food inventory and a super precise expiry date tracking system.

    2.You emphasize that the bottom line is that “we need is a behavioral shift. The American culture right now is one of abundance. Our fridges and pantries have to be constantly full.” We feel that the underlying assumption that you express here is that tech solutions cannot lead to shifts in consumer behavior, while this is precisely what the field of tech intervention and tech service design is all about. The purpose of a well-designed tech solution is to tweak consumer behavior that leads to food waste, helping users assess and buy “exactly what they need” and use it in time. The design of the CozZo app is based on the breakthrough research in the field of consumer food waste in 2016 “Causes & Determinants of Consumers Food Waste A theoretical framework,” conducted by REFRESH and the Wageningen University. Therefore, CozZo is able to offer an accurate user experience coupled with smart, self-learning and intuitive technology and an excellent UI/UX. This is why, CozZo has become the most trusted app on UK App Store and is currently ranked as #1 food management app by multiple user groups. You can read in detail about the various intervention points of this tech solution here https://cozzo.app/go/rcbste/.

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