The world is facing a major problem: Tons of good food is regularly thrown away while, at the same time, millions of people without access to it go hungry. According to a Harvard study, “It has been estimated that redistributing 30 percent of all the food lost in the United States could feed every food insecure American their total diet.”
The Harvard researchers found that nearly 40 percent of all food in America is thrown away. Their study found that Americans waste 160 billion pounds of food each year—often because of simple misunderstandings about expiration dates: Many Americans refuse to consume food after the dates on packaging passes, even though in many cases, the dates have nothing to do with food safety. Frequently, they are simply suggestions of when freshness is most optimal.
The problem is so significant that it’s even caught the attention of the Vatican. During his address at the United Nations World Environment Day last summer, Pope Francis likened it to a moral issue, saying, “Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of the poor and the hungry.”
But, there are companies and organizations trying to do something about it. Here’s a look at how with new technology and greater awareness, we can solve the world’s food waste problem.
The makers of the Pareup app recognized a basic problem in the food retail model: Many supermarkets want to protect their brands by getting rid of disfigured produce or items that are approaching their “Best if used by” dates. Most food banks have infrastructure hindrances and strict food safety guidelines that prevent them from receiving the food that would otherwise be trashed. As a result, in a city like New York, 6.5 million pounds of food are thrown away every single day. Pareup—a tech start-up that will be launching an app later this year—connects locals with supermarkets, restaurants and bakeries, and lets them purchase the garbage-bound food before it’s trashed.
The Daily Table
Last year, former Trader Joes executive Doug Rauch announced plans to open a store that would sell food that has passed its labeled date at a marked down price. The idea for Daily Table, is a retail store that actually operates as a non-profit. It would allow consumers to purchase “expired” food—that is still totally safe to eat, at a discount. Rauch told The New York Times, that ultimately, he hopes to provide low-income households with a place that they can affordably purchase healthy food for their families. “If you’re on food stamps, the average family has about $3 to spend on dinner. For that you can get about 3,700 calories’ worth of soda, crackers, cookies and snacks, or you can get 300 or 320 calories of fruits and vegetables. It’s economically rational to feed your kids junk.” But, by selling his food at a lower price, Rauch believes he can change that.
The “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign
It’s not just the U.S. that faces a food waste problem. In response to the millions of pounds of food thrown out every year, the EU announced that 2014 would be the “European Year Against Food Waste.” Heeding the initiative, France’s massive Intermarche supermarket chain came up with the “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign. The idea is to purchase ugly produce from suppliers—that would otherwise be thrown away—and sell it at a discount. And, just to prove it still tasted fine, they even made custom soups and packaged meals with it. As you can see in the short video below, the campaign was a massive success.
Plant Power Plants
Food waste could one day be used to power our homes. In the U.S., the company Harvest Power is using food waste to generate electricity through the process of anaerobic digestion—essentially letting microorganism eat up waste products, and capturing the byproducts that can be used to generate power. Currently, the company processes 45,000 tons of disregarded food a year. In the U.K., the same technology is now being used—through the recycling company Biffa—to power a Sainsbury’s grocery store. According to The Guardian, it’s the “ first retail outlet in the UK to come off the National Grid and be powered by food waste alone.” As the paper explains, “Food waste from the chain’s supermarkets around the UK is delivered by lorry to Biffa’s plant in Cannock, and turned into bio-methane gas which is then used to generate electricity that is directly supplied to the supermarket.”
The Think.Eat.Save. Project
The UN Environment Program has launched a new campaign that they hope will equip both governments, big businesses and communities to help stem the world’s food waste problem. As part of the Think.Eat.Save. initiative, the group has released a Guidance report—a free online booklet that outlines specific steps business leaders and legislators can take to institute meaningful change. But, the report isn’t just focused on the environmental and humanitarian benefits of curbing food waste—the report, and entire campaign, is meant to show consumers and leaders the economic benefit of purchasing food more efficiently.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.