Tackling Food Waste, One App at a Time

Kayla Voigt

Try as we might to use it all up, we toss a lot of useful food in the trash. About a pound a day, per person. And the problem is huge for restaurants. The average restaurant produces 50,000 pounds of food waste each year. Together, food waste accounts for about 22 percent of our solid waste nationwide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I think the most challenging aspect of food waste is that it’s something that people do on a daily basis. It’s so culturally accepted both inside our homes and at restaurants,” says Sabine Meister Valenga, CMO and co-founder of Food for All, a startup helping restaurants sell leftover meals to app users at a discount.

What we toss can have bigger consequences than we realize. Wasting food isn’t just wasting the final product. It’s wasting the whole supply chain. “When I throw away an apple, I’m not just throwing away that apple,” Valenga says. “I’m throwing away all the resources that were put into growing that apple and then transporting that apple.” When it comes to wasted food in restaurants, they’re also throwing away the manpower, infrastructure and effort that went into that meal.

Some restaurants are making strides toward reducing their waste. Take Sunday in Brooklyn, for example. At first glance it might just look like your typical New York small plate eatery, but behind the scenes its employees are doing so much more.

“At Sunday in Brooklyn, we look to be as sustainable as possible,” says chef Jaime Young, who makes eliminating waste a creative challenge for his team. Those citrus peels leftover from crafting your fruity drink? You might find them in the seasoning of their fried chicken. And the egg noodles you’re munching on? They’re made with leftover yolks from the restaurant’s signature egg white meringue. “We’re not a zero-waste restaurant, but we do think of how to be as efficient as possible,” says Young.

Following the Food Recovery Hierarchy

Restaurants like Sunday in Brooklyn are still a rarity in the food industry, though. That’s largely because without a better option, restaurants are simply used to throwing food away.

“It’s a really common practice to throw away edible food because they don’t have any other easy solution for it,” says Valenga. “They account for it in their business model.”

But increasingly businesses and nonprofits from a wide range of industries—technology, logistics, and agribusiness, to name a few—have stepped in to provide their own take on solving food waste. (Two-thirds of the world’s 50 largest food companies participate in programs with a food loss reduction target.) Although their approaches vary, most of these groups work under the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy model, an inverted pyramid that shows organizations how best to reduce waste and divert food.

Under the hierarchy, the first priority is to produce less, reducing the excess volume at the source. This has the important environmental impact of cutting groundwater and reservoir usage—as well as chemical pesticide and fertilizer usage. The second is to use the extra food to feed those in need through donations to food banks, soup kitchens or homeless shelters. The third, to divert waste toward animal feed. Next, food waste can convert into material for industrial uses, such as biofuels, or compost for agriculture. Only as a last resort should it head to landfills.

There’s an app for that

Most food waste organizations operate behind the scenes, supplying tracking software, connecting food banks to businesses or managing logistics and transportation.

On the consumer side, apps are popping up to connect hungry customers with otherwise wasted food. With an app like Food for All, users can purchase meals at a steep discount from local restaurants in Boston and New York City that would otherwise be thrown out. Customers browse through available meals on the app and pick them up around closing time.

For Valenga and co-founders avid Rodríguez Sánchez and Victor Carreño Food for All began as a way to save money as hungry college students on a budget. “Let’s just say we were very big fans of coffee shops and cafes that would do last-hour special deals, especially around campus,” she says, laughing. “We realized that these coffee shops were not only helping us, they were part of a bigger mission of reducing food waste.” Today the app helps users find those kinds of steep discounts they may not otherwise know about.

More than just helping the environment

Solving food waste can also help businesses grow. “The vast majority of food businesses are smaller businesses like restaurants and cafes and bakeries,” says Matt Holtzman, founder of goMkt. “They don’t have the tools to make use of that [excess] food.” Similar to Food for All, the goMkt app allows you to purchase last-minute meals through flash sales or discounts in the New York metropolitan area. “We save restaurants money on both sides [of the equation],” Holtzman says.

When someone purchases a restaurant’s extra inventory through the app, it’s “found money” for the restaurants that often run on thin profit margins and helps to alleviate costs incurred on the supply side. “A lot of these places pay for private haulers to come and pick up whatever they’re disposing,” Holtzman says. “There’s a real price tag with generating that waste because they pay by the pound.”

It’s not just scrappy nonprofits or tech startups trying to solve the issue, either. As consumers become more aware of environmental concerns associated with food waste, they’ve begun to demand big business shifts to more sustainable enterprises. Walmart, arguably the king of big business, received the highest grade—a B—in a 2018 report on grocery food waste because of its in-store efforts to standardize its labels, discount foods closer to the expiration date, and educate shoppers and employees on food waste and “ugly” produce.

Walmart eliminated an estimated 660 million pounds of food waste by transitioning to a “best if used date” for 92 percent of private-brand products, while its donation programs supplied more than 600 million pounds of food in fiscal year 2017 to food banks and shelters. These types of programs are becoming more common for big-box grocery stores.

That goes for suppliers, too. “You take big companies like Tyson,” says Holtzman. “They created a venture fund to invest in sustainable food. [Big businesses] see the writing on the wall. They’re going to shift their practices, [even if it’s] little by little.”

There’s no one-recipe-fits-all solution for food waste. But that’s not stopping people like Valenga and Holtzman from working together toward a better future. “For-profits and nonprofits are all trying to tackle different parts of this issue on different levels of the pyramid, so it’s really important that different agencies and sectors collaborate,” says Valenga.

“I got into this business because I wanted to make a dent in the problem,” says Holtzman. “I don’t view it as a zero-sum issue. I think these solutions can become mainstream in the future.”

How to help

You can reduce food waste even if you don’t live in the cities these apps serve. Donate what you don’t use to a local food bank; seek out local food rescue programs, such as those sponsored by local grocery stores and distributors; buy “ugly” produce; compost your food scraps; or channel your inner Brooklyn chef by becoming more creative in the kitchen to use up all that you buy.

“We focus on using ingredients in their entirety, even if that means two different menu items,” says Young. “If we have fruit or produce that is getting ripe too quickly, we preserve it by making pickles, jams or butters.”

When it comes to reducing food waste at home, the best advice is to use what you have. Before you head to the grocery store, know what you want to make—and what you plan to do with the leftovers. What you have in your fridge and pantry is a great place to start.