This is the web version of our weekly newsletter. Sign up for it to get all the best food tech news delivered directly to your inbox each week.
Last Monday I started conducting a food waste audit at home to track the amount of edible food I throw out on a weekly basis. It was easy — at first. As of Thursday I was smugly patting myself on the back for having nary a piece of leftover kale in the trash. Then I went out to eat four times over the weekend, and come Monday was left with a fridge full of to-go containers I no longer even wanted.
I doubt I’m alone here.
While our need to curb the food waste problem at home is becoming increasingly apparent, restaurants also play a huge part in the 1.3 billion-ton issue. There are companies currently employing tech to fight the issue. Winnow, for example, just raised a $12 million Series B round for its connected scales that measure the amount of unused inventory that gets thrown out in high-volume kitchens. Other companies, notably LeanPath and Tenzo, offer similar solutions. But while offerings like these could go far in helping restaurants curb food waste in the back of house, they don’t yet address what to do about all the post-consumer food waste that piles up in restaurants — that is, the leftovers on our plates.
Recent moves from California might help. This week, I wrote about a newly formed law in the Golden State that will require limited-service restaurants to provide separate bins in the front of house into which consumers can throw their uneaten food, soiled paper, and other “organic waste.” Dubbed AB 827, the law is aimed at changing behaviors in terms of how consumers think about their food when they eat out. Having a server clear away a half-eaten meal can hide the issue; seeing your own hands scrape half a plate of Yaki-Udon into the trash is considerably more off-putting. If laws like AB 827 can help change our perception of food waste, and if other states enact similar moves, we might just be able to whittle that 1.3 billion-ton problem down.
YourLocal Redefines the Concept of Surplus Food
Alongside changing consumer behavior, restaurants curbing waste at the back-of-house level remains a vital part of keeping food out of the landfills. Measuring inventory a la Winnow is one way. Selling surplus meals at discount prices is another. This week, my colleague Catherine Lamb reminded us of the latter with her profile on a company called YourLocal.
YourLocal works with restaurants who have surplus food at the end of the day, making that food available for consumers to purchase via an app. Users download the YourLocal app, peruse available meals, then purchase them at heavily discounted prices.
There are many such food rescue companies in Europe, but, as Catherine points out, questions remain around how it will be received in the U.S. Part of YourLocal’s mission is “to shift the idea of what ‘surplus’ means by selling only high-quality foods, showing consumers that extra doesn’t necessarily mean second-rate.”
In other words, another consumer behavior to start changing when it comes to fighting food waste.
We Really, Really Need More Data on Indoor Farming’s Actual Success
Meanwhile, indoor farming is having a bit of a day of reckoning. This week, MIT halted work on much of its Open Agriculture Initiative following reports of academic dishonesty and environmental concerns.
OpenAg, as the project is often called, was developing high-tech containers for growing plants in fully controlled environments. Trouble is, that wasn’t really happening. OpenAg has gotten a lot of hype, but reports this week surfaced of containers not functioning properly, needing far more maintenance than anticipated, and, well, not really growing much in terms of plants.
The whole situation is less a saga about one project’s exaggerated claims and more a reminder of how little data we actually have on the true effectiveness of these tech-centric indoor farming techniques. What are the best crops for indoor production (hint: not root vegetables)? Where is the wastewater from these farms going? How energy efficient (or not) are grow containers that rely so heavily on LED lighting? So far, answers to these questions remain rather dim.
“A lot of the small companies have something to tell, and we should hear their story,” Paul P.G. Gauthier, formerly of the Princeton Vertical Farming project, told me last year. He was referring to the need for more data on the realities of indoor farming: what’s working, what isn’t, and whether the reality even comes close to the hype.
As the news from MIT this week suggests, more data would probably uncover some unwanted surprises about the success rate of indoor farms. But it’s also the key ingredient to figuring out the industry’s most productive place in our future food system.