From meal-planning apps to real-time food redistribution programs, technology may be the answer to reaching the government’s new goal to cut food waste in half.
It’s a common refrain for moms with picky eaters everywhere: Finish your dinner; kids all over the world are starving. As with many things, mom knew what she was talking about.
A whopping 133 billion pounds of food ends up in U.S. landfills every year. If even 15 percent of food waste could be diverted to hunger relief, it would be enough to feed the 25 million-plus Americans facing food insecurity, according to estimates from the USDA.
It’s a solvable problem, and people are taking notice: Food waste is under attack.
While chefs like Dan Barber make waves serving “trash” at pop-up diners, the U.S. government has even bigger plans. In September, the USDA and the EPA set a food waste reduction goal, aiming to slash food waste in half by 2030.
“When we look at food brought into homes and how much loss there is, it’s quite staggering,” said Jess Dang, founder of Cook Smarts, an online meal-planning tool that helps users optimize ingredients and prevent food waste. “And then you have people who are starving.”
Currently, all that uneaten food sits in landfills emitting methane. And the energy it takes to produce food destined for the trash? Also wasted.
The benefits of keeping food in kitchens extend beyond addressing hunger and climate change; it’s a money issue, too. An average family of four leaves more $1,500 in food uneaten each year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a recent USDA statement.
Fortunately, technology is providing new ways for individuals and organizations to decrease food waste.
Reducing waste begins when people buy food. One shopping approach—a way that’s contributed to those mountains of waste—is to whiz through the grocery store grabbing whatever looks good.
Life happens, the food goes bad and is tossed–and the cycle starts again. With an online meal-planning tool, consumers can take the guesswork out of shopping.
On Cook Smarts, home cooks can pick from a library of meals, tailor them to specific dietary needs, plug in the number of servings and let the app do the math. The site creates a shopping list that shows exactly how much is needed of each ingredient.
“We’re not just going to collect recipes for you,” Dang said. “We take a holistic view of ordering ingredients so you use the most perishable ones at the beginning of the week.”
In addition, the tool employs a “cook once, eat twice” approach, building tomorrow’s meals out of today’s leftovers (and remaining ingredients), further reducing waste.
“You can sift through Pinterest for hours…and end up with five disparate recipes that have no efficiencies to them,” Dang says. “If we’re going to ask you to buy parsley for a meal, we look at how to use it again.”
Fees for the service start at $72 per year (after three free sample meal plans), but there’s a huge range of meal-planning apps and services both free and paid (No More to Go, Big Oven, The Six O’Clock Scramble, MealBoard, Relish!, and Cozi to name a few) that can help users reduce food waste.
Taking the “buy only what you need” idea a step further, meal-kit delivery services have taken kitchens by storm recently.
Sites like Plated, Blue Apron and Hello Fresh eliminate the trip to the grocery store, and while opinions are divided on the overall sustainability of this approach, the weekly boxes contain only what’s needed to make meals—with zero food waste.
When in doubt, many cooks toss it out, unintentionally throwing away perfectly good food. The USDA’s new FoodKeeper app offers advice on how to store food safely, helping to maximize storage life. It reminds users what’s lurking in the fridge, with reminders to use food before it goes bad.
For the endless turkey and ham that will spoil this holiday season, the site Love Food Hate Waste has creative recipe ideas specifically targeted to using up seasonal leftovers.
For food that won’t get eaten, the app Home Composting teaches users through how to compost, breaking down a process many think is too difficult. The app LeftOver Swap helps users give away and call dibs on extras—think Instagram meets Freecycle.
While individual change is important, institutions are some of the largest contributors to food waste. The amount of uneaten food at New York University led students Samir Goel and Hannah Dehradunwala to find a solution.
“In New York City, you see fancy events, and people outside who would do anything for a few bites of food,” said Goel. “We said ‘why don’t we take food from these events and get it to the people who need it?’”
The problem, Goel explains, is that while there are always people who have food to give away, they don’t have time to track down where to give it.
“If there was a shelter next door, they would, but if not, it wasn’t a priority,” he said.
That’s where their startup, Transfernation, comes in. Technology makes it easy for organizations to donate food, Goel said. Using an app built with the help of Social Effort, they provide a system for corporations to post available food and volunteers to find opportunities.
“It’s like Uber,” he said. “We can source people in real time for pickups. If a volunteer accepts, it checks them in when they’re there for the pick-up. Corporations can see what’s happening in real time.”
The group has already transferred more than 10,000 pounds of food to agencies.
Transfernation isn’t the only app getting excess food to where it’s needed. The Spoiler Alert app recently launched by new MIT grads lets stores with surplus produce post their offerings for nearby food rescue organizations to claim.
In the San Francisco area, Feeding Forward helps connect corporate donors with agencies. Their system’s algorithm matches the food with the donor’s closest recipient. It even tracks frequency so that donations are distributed equally.
Chicago food recovery is underway with Zero Percent‘s web-based application connecting donors with recipients. Food Cowboy, which sees itself as “air traffic control,” uses mobile technology to route food from wholesalers and restaurants bound for dumpsters to food banks and soup kitchens.
“Food waste is one of those places where people are willing to collaborate. About 40 percent of the food we produce is thrown away,” he said.
“Forty percent is enormous. I don’t think one organization or two or three could handle it,” he continued. “We fill different niches—events, farmers markets, producers, restaurants. There’s a lot of mutual respect.”