Technology Takes on the Challenge of Reducing Food Waste
The proverb “waste not, want not” lays out a simple solution to the issue of food waste: By not wasting food today, we won’t have a shortage of food in the future. Unfortunately, as a country, America is failing miserably at that task.
Americans throw out $165 billion worth of food each year, which means that 40% of food in the U.S. is wasted, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
That number is so large because food is wasted at every stop along the food chain, from the farm to restaurants to grocery stores to consumers’ homes. As a multifaceted challenge, it will take multiple solutions to reduce waste.
If you wanted to know the keeping quality of foods 20 years ago, you could request a paper pamphlet from your local county Extension educator. Created in collaboration by the USDA, Cornell University, and the Food Marketing Institute, the pamphlet included information on how long you could keep food in the refrigerator, freezer, pantry, etc.
That paper pamphlet was version 1.0 of what today is the FoodKeeper app. Converted to an app in 2015 with USDA funding, the app has almost 700 foods that users can search through to learn about the keeping quality of food.
“We provide good food storage and freshness advice to consumers and put the data in the palm of their hands,” says Robert Gravani, a professor of food science at Cornell University who has been involved with the project since its conception.
In addition to storage time lines, the FoodKeeper app also includes cooking recommendations for meat products, the option to set calendar reminders before food goes bad, and alerts for food recalls.
Food safety and smarter economics, not food waste, were the original goals of the project. “Consumers would often purchase large quantities of products that were on sale. If they didn’t handle it properly, they’d wind up throwing it away. There was no economic advantage to doing that, so we set out to provide guidelines,” explains Gravani. “The food waste issue didn’t surface until later.
“Anything we can do to help consumers think about the issue and reduce food waste is very good,” he adds, with a few specific recommendations. “Buy in reasonable quantities and put food in the freezer if you can’t use it right away.”
The FoodKeeper app is available at no cost for Apple and Android devices in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. To date, 189,000 users have downloaded the app.
The crooked carrot – along with his friends the curvy cucumber and the tiny apple – is another culprit in the food-waste challenge. An estimated one out of every five fruits and vegetables in the U.S. is wasted because the produce doesn’t meet cosmetic standards, according to Imperfect Produce.
“Historically, some of this food gets left in the field, which returns nutrients to the soil but doesn’t do anything for the farmer economically,” says Reilly Brock at Imperfect. “If you’re growing carrots, you can sell to processors if you have a big enough volume. But if you don’t have the volume or it’s too far away, it might not make economic sense to ship it. There’s a wide range of outcomes for this produce, but a lot of them do nothing for the farmer.”
Imperfect Produce aims to give farmers a better outcome while reducing food waste. Launched in 2015, Imperfect works with producers who don’t have a place to sell a portion of their crop because it’s imperfect, who have a crop that doesn’t meet size specifications, or who end up with a surplus. The food is boxed up and sent out through a subscription service, which is roughly 30% less than produce purchased at grocery stores.
“This appeals to a wide range of people – not just people who want cheap produce, or people who want something delivered, or people who care about the environment. If you care about food waste, this offers a meaningful way to be involved as part of the solution,” explains Brock.
Imperfect ships produce to consumers in 11 metropolitan areas and continues to add new cities to the list. The company’s efforts have saved 35 million pounds of food.
Even with consumers and companies doing their part to reduce food waste, at the end of the day, there will still be food that goes bad and is no longer safe for human consumption. This is where KDC Ag comes in.
For the past 30 years, Kamine Development Corporation (KDC) has developed more than $3.5 billion in infrastructure. That business launched KDC Ag as a stand-alone company in 2015. In conjunction with California Safe Soil, KDC Ag developed an aerobic enzymatic technology that can take food and turn it into fertilizer or animal feed in less than three hours.
“Our process is amazingly efficient; compost usually takes two to three months,” says Justin Kamine, cofounder and partner of KDC Ag.
How does it work? Supermarkets collect meat and produce that are no longer able to be sold and put the items in totes that are collected every two days. Back at KDC Ag’s facility, the food is put through a grinder, and then food-grade digestive enzymes break it down to the molecular level. “That liquid is then pasteurized for pathogen safety and multiple batches are blended for consistency, so we can guarantee the nutrient composition of our product,” says Kamine.
While the process works to create fertilizer and feed, KDC Ag’s focus, so far, has primarily been on fertilizer. This fertilizer is sold to farmers through California Safe Soil.
KDC Ag has two facilities today – one operated by California Safe Soil in California and the other in Pennsylvania. “Each one of our facilities consumes 60,000 tons of total food per year,” says Kamine. “We are hoping to open many more of these facilities throughout the U.S.”