Thought for Food

April 4th, 2014

30%, 133 billion pounds, $161 billion. This is how much of the American food supply ended up in landfills last year according to a study done by the USDA Economic Research Service. As if our landfills weren’t burdened enough, we are stuffing them full of food that could have filled millions of hungry mouths. Whether the food is thrown out from grocery stores who overstock to satisfy the demand for 24/7 variety and flashy displays, restaurants who always overbuy to ensure availability, or individual citizens who purchase food that they never get around to cooking, the amount of usable, nutritious food that is wasted in the US is an abomination that poses a meaningful challenge to innovators and entrepreneurs. The USDA and EPA issued an official call to action by announcing the US Food Waste Challenge in 2010, and to date, has amassed quite a list of hard-hitting power players across business genres who are committed to reducing food waste, recovering wholesome food for human consumption, and recycling discards to other uses including animal feed, composting, and energy generation.

Massachusetts’s legislators have taken up the cause by passing a ban on the disposal of commercial food waste that will take effect on July 1, 2014. Under the new law, any entity that disposes of at least one ton of organic waste per week is required to donate or re-purpose the useable food. Any remaining food waste would be required to be shipped to an anaerobic digestion facility, a composting operation or an animal-feed operation. To facilitate the implementation of the ban, the Department of Energy Resources is making $4 million available in grants and low-interest loans to private companies building such facilities.

Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s, is doing his part to solve the food waste crisis by founding a new grocery concept in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood called Daily Table. Daily Table will collect wholesome food past its printed use-by date and cook prepared meals on site. They will also offer milk, eggs, bread, and produce all at prices comparable to junk food. Critics question the morality of a concept that appears to take rich peoples’ trash and sell it to poor people, but Rauch, who has been in the grocery industry since the 70’s, says he is not doing anything different than what the national, high-priced chains do internally with their spoiling food: cooking it and putting it out on the hot tray for the next day. Since Daily Table is a non-profit, grocers can get a tax deduction for donating food, just like a food bank, making Rauch’s food cost very low. He insists that he is only interested in recovering wholesome, healthy food and using that to bring affordable nutrition to families who might normally opt for junk food.

While Daily Table is a great solution for the Boston area, two MIT students are thinking nationally. Emily Malina and Ricky Ashenfelter’s new app Spoiler Alert will serve as a mobile marketplace for entities with excess food to connect to businesses and consumers that have a productive use for it. By connecting buyers and sellers and facilitating the exchange of real time local supply and demand information for surplus, expiring, and spoiled foods, Spoiler Alert is using the sharing principles of circular economy to re-direct looming landfill waste into useful energy. A prototype of the app should be ready for beta testing this fall!

It is heartbreaking to know that that much food goes to waste when I can walk down Hollywood Boulevard or Skid Row and look into the eyes of hundreds of hungry people. Innovators like Doug, Emily, and Ricky are addressing the problem by developing brands dedicated to revolutionizing the way big business deals with excess food, but each and every one of us can take part on a smaller scale. Composting is a great way to re-purpose food waste at home, but if that isn’t feasible in your household, at least consider the next time you go to throw away last night’s leftovers or walk out on half of your meal in a restaurant, boxing up that food and handing it to a homeless person. Sure, it may take a little extra effort, but the smile you put on the recipient’s face is definitely worth the inconvenience.

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