Given that up to 40 percent of the food in the United States is never eaten, it’s no wonder there are a number of startups tackling the issue. Whether it’s working at the farm level, creating marketplaces for excess food, or dynamically adjusting menu prices, companies are working to reduce food waste from almost every angle.
LeanPath has been combating food waste since it was founded in 2004. And while it fights food waste with technology, it’s bigger goal is to fundamentally change behaviors both inside the kitchen and out.
Based just outside of Portland, OR, LeanPath works with high-volume kitchens that prepare food for masses of people. Think: college cafeterias, buffets at casinos or hotels, etc., places where food is not made-to-order.
LeanPath provides these kitchens with a connected scale with a camera mounted on it. When a kitchen worker throws out food pre-consumer (meaning anything before a consumer puts it on their plate), they enter the type of food it is on a touchscreen, weigh it and take a picture. This data is sent to the cloud and tracked.
From this, LeanPath can help kitchens categorize the reasons for the food waste. The food could be spoiled, or burnt, or there could have just been too much of it. Equipped with this insight, kitchen managers can see where the waste is coming from. This manual act of weighing food, seeing the pictures of it and tracking daily waste helps kitchen staff see how big the problem is and begin to change behavior.
Once a kitchen understands how big a food waste problem they have, LeanPath offers training services to improve the situation. The company offers both algorithmic advice as well as live coaches who work with the kitchen to reduce waste. LeanPath even has chefs on staff to guide kitchen managers in efficient food rotation, adjusting production levels and a big issue: trimming. Behind overproduction, LeanPath has found that improper cutting of meat or vegetables is the second leading cause of food waste in the kitchens they serve.
LeanPath President and CEO, Andrew Shakman says that his company typically finds that four to ten percent of food purchased becomes pre-consumer waste. Shakman says that LeanPath typically cuts pre-consumer waste in half or more for those kitchens, generating a two to eight percent savings on the food bill. For a low margin business like food service, this can add up to meaningful amounts of money.
Right now, LeanPath is in 1,200 kitchens across 20 countries, and counts high-profile companies such as Google, Ikea and Aramark as customers. LeanPath is bootstrapped, and has raised an undisclosed amount of “impact funding” from environmentally conscious investors. Shakman said the company may explore to equity fundraising this year as it looks to double the number of countries it’s in.
But for Shakman, the problem of food waste isn’t just in the kitchen, it’s also with us. Consumer expectations bear an equal amount of blame for food overproduction. So-called “merchandising” of food creates expectations in all of us that buffets should be bountiful and filled with abundant displays of croissants and sculpted strawberries — a lot of which goes in the trash.
Getting consumers to shift their thinking on that will be a huge challenge. Hopefully as LeanPath and other startups generate awareness about food waste, they can change our behavior as well.