A Human Rights Crisis in Wasted Food: Apps and Tech Can Help
In a country where one out of six people lack access to enough food, the idea that we waste millions of tons of food per year is both ludicrous and unethical. Wasted food also has an impact on the environment and climate change, so it has an impact on every person, not just those that (unnecessarily) don’t have enough to eat. At every step of the food supply chain, there is a significant amount of loss and waste, concentrated most at grocery stores and restaurants (41 percent) and in homes (43 percent). According to Food Business News, farms, businesses and individuals spend $218 billion on food that never gets eaten. Because of this huge disconnect between supply, demand and consumption, there are chasms of need that are only recently being addressed by start up companies and technology developers.
Since so much food is wasted in the home, companies are taking a few different tracks to encourage people to use produce and packaged items before they go bad. In the UK, where almost half of the seven million tons of annual wasted food comes from the home, dairy cooperative Arla Foods has teamed up with label designer Mimica Touch Lab. Instead of using expiry dates, which can be arbitrary when it comes to actually determining whether products are no longer consumable, Mimica has developed a label that changes texture (a product formerly called Bump Mark). When the package experiences food or temperature changes, a gelatin layer within the layer turns bumpy. Not only is it a more reliable indicator if something can still be used, but it’s also more accessible for people with visual impairments.
Another strategy having to do with expiring food is encouraging customers to purchase items that are about to pass their “best by” date. Tel Aviv-based tech platform Wasteless partners with grocery stores to reduce prices of packaged food that is approaching expiration. The automation process addresses pricing and stock levels with smart bar codes and shelf tags. Dynamic pricing has been applied to other products, and Wasteless is addressing this potential to reduce stock losses for stores as well as increase value for customers.
Restaurants have so many hoops to jump through to make their businesses as efficient as possible, balancing logistics like sourcing, health codes, and menu trends while somehow making a profit. But they generate a huge amount of compostable or even consumable waste - and MintScraps was developed to help them track and monitor all that waste. It makes their businesses more sustainable, as reducing waste saves disposal costs. Additionally, the data generated by the app helps managers understand patterns created to save money in other ways - like intelligent purchasing of ingredients or better ways to recycle. MintScraps also encourages employees to reduce waste with a gamified component that recognizes top performers and cultivates a composting and recycling culture within the company.
In a bid for the unsold product that restaurants and food vendors are stuck with at the end of their workday, app developer Too Good To Go connects customers to prevent it from being thrown away. What began in Copenhagen, but has now extended across Europe and the US, TGTG has so far been downloaded 1.2 million times since its launch in 2015. By their estimates, they have saved 10,000 meals from the dumpster - users browse vendors that are about to close and pay via the app. They show their receipt once they get to the location and get their discounted meal.
In the US, as well as many developed countries of the world, hunger isn’t caused by a lack of food, but by poverty. Millions of Americans struggle to provide food for their families - the food insecurity rate rises from one in six to one in five households when there are children living there. Less a regional issue, it is classist and racist - food insecurity exists in every county in the Americas, and it affects one in three African-American and Latino children. If we properly managed the wasted food in this country, 25 million of the 49 million hungry people could be fed.
As for the environmental impacts, all food grown has a carbon footprint. This footprint varies widely depending on the type of food, of course - largest for animal products and produce that is flown across the globe to its target market, smallest for organic and local produce. But even the smallest footprint adds up with energy being consumed to cultivate it, then cart it from farm to shop, and from shop to restaurant or home kitchen. When you don’t eat the food that has completed this exhausting journey, you’re basically just letting loose greenhouse gases for no reason at all. Happily, developers and engineers are creating networks that can help us reduce what we waste in restaurants and at home, and redistribute all this food to people who really need it.