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Nearly every day, five delivery vans from Second Servings of Houston navigate the streets and highways of America’s fourth-largest city, picking up leftover foods from more than 400 restaurants, supermarkets, and manufacturers. Crisscrossing the city with an average of about six tons of material overall, the vans deliver the foodstuffs straightaway to charity pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, community centers, and low-income housing complexes, where the potential waste becomes meals for hundreds of people.
Solving the global food waste dilemma isn’t going to come down to 20-foot vans traversing the streets of the vast Houston metropolitan area. But they will help a little bit, every day. And that’s the point: It’s only bite by bite, helping hand by helping hand, business by business, and institution by institution that the challenge of squandering what we eat is going to be significantly stemmed and, perhaps someday, almost vanquished.
Policymakers, activists, industry executives, and even shoppers continue to worry about the global problem of food loss and waste, balancing the sad fact that up to 40% of potential foodstuffs doesn’t get consumed against the magnitude of food insecurity, the continued growth of the human population, and the ongoing endangerment of arable land to feed them all.
Food Technology has published three major articles in the past year on food loss and waste. In January, we outlined the extent of the problem and how it is critical to addressing hunger, acknowledging that defining and even measuring the problem remains a challenge. In March, we examined how most food loss occurs behind the farm gate worldwide and how scientific and technological innovations offer promising solutions for agricultural, storage, and transportation waste and inefficiency. And in July, the magazine published a look at how food manufacturers are fixing inefficiencies in production processes and upcycling byproducts into value-added ingredients.
Now, in the final article in this series, Food Technology is looking at the problem of the “last mile” of food distribution and consumption: how waste can be reduced in the process of transporting food from factories and farms to retailer and foodservice warehouses, supermarkets, restaurants, and ultimately, households.
While on-farm waste and to-market transportation comprise the biggest problem in developing agricultural economies such as in Africa, developed countries can make their largest gains in the fight against food loss and waste through their sophisticated food distribution and retail infrastructures.
One hopeful aspect of the staggering statistics on food waste is that most of it is avoidable and even reversible. Consulting firm Capgemini conducted a survey of organizations and consumers—the majority of which were from developed nations—and found that about 37% of the food loss occurs at the retail and consumption stages (see infographic on page 45). About 13% of that total is wasted in food stores, 26% in foodservice, and 61% stemming from household waste. Globally, that amounts to nearly 931 million tons of food wasted each year.
Retailers could reduce their cost of goods sold by 3% by effectively cutting food waste, according to consultancy McKinsey, while manufacturers could reduce costs by 5%. Grocers and manufacturers could capture $80 billion in new market potential by developing new businesses from food that would otherwise be lost. The whole system could reduce upstream food loss and waste by 50%–70%, McKinsey estimates.
“Food manufacturers and retailers will need to see food loss as a result of inefficiencies and missed opportunities across production, procurement, R&D, the supply chain, and sales—not as an inevitable cost of doing business or a niche topic that concerns only the sustainability department,” writes McKinsey consultant Moira Borens and colleagues. “They should see reducing food loss as a potential value pool: an opportunity to improve both the top and bottom lines.”
Consumer awareness is helping to drive change. Seventy-two percent of global consumers have become more conscious about their level of food wastage, compared with 33% before the pandemic, according to Capgemini’s survey.
There are two main reasons they’re turning this growing awareness into action. While 56% of consumers said they “want to save on costs,” as they cope with persistent high food-price inflation, 52% were also motivated because they “care about world hunger and want to contribute toward alleviating it,” 51% said they are worried about climate change, and 50% were worried about the environment. At the same time, cutting waste conveniently also reduces business costs, results in increased consumer satisfaction, and fosters innovation.
“The consumer really has an opportunity to focus on how they’re going to change, and as there’s confluence between sustainability and ethics and business concerns, all of these ideas of what consumers demand from purpose-driven companies, and the rising cost of goods to businesses and how they can take costs out of their supply chains, we’ll see them all play a pivotal role in reducing food waste,” says Lindsey Mazza, global retail lead at Capgemini Invent.
Linkages all the way back to the field and barnyard contribute to the problem, of course, but the “last mile” of transportation—from farm and factory to retail and foodservice distribution centers—shares significant blame.
In distribution, the challenge is to maintain quality and freshness by leveraging technology and creating transparency to better balance supply and demand. “Technology can do a lot of the heavy lifting for us and deliver a very positive impact [by] sharing data across value chains to identify where food is being wasted or lost, and fixing problems instead of guessing,” Mazza says.
CalAmp, for instance, uses IoT sensors that aid in monitoring the environmental temperature of perishable food products in cargo while in transit, sharing readings via the cloud and providing visibility and control measures to decrease the risk of food spoilage and protect product quality.
“It’s especially good for the last mile,” says Todd Ague, a senior director for CalAmp. “Something could happen in the mile and a half before the drop-off point, a shock event such as hitting a bump that could be tied to spoilage, and who’s liable?”
Both digital and biotechnology solutions have targeted fresh produce for obvious reasons. The challenge is less obvious: Most of us don’t know when it’s actually bad to eat the stuff. “We Americans pick things with our eyes, not for flavor,” says Katherine Sizov, CEO and cofounder of Strella Biotechnology. Retailer practices reflect that reality. “At the end, there’s a giant game of hot potato with perishable products,” she says.
But if stores “had low-color fruit but you were able to sell that at a lower price into price-sensitive markets, that would allow the retailer flexibility,” Sizov continues. “They can address a market they otherwise haven’t gotten to.” Strella uses sensors, IoT networks, and data analysis to interpret shelf life, picking up on the gases that fruits and vegetables emit before they change in quality.
Another startup, SAVRpak, is pioneering use of a thermodynamic packet that goes inside a package of, say, strawberries or spinach and captures condensation so the produce lasts longer.
And Apeel adds a layer of tasteless, odorless, plant-based protection on the surface of fruits and vegetables to reduce spoilage and keep them fresh for twice as long as regular produce. The company claims its product was able to prevent 33 million avocados, limes, and organic apples from going to waste in grocery stores in 2021. Soon Apeel will be applying the same technology to English cucumbers.
Once food reaches the ecosystem of the supermarket, it’s up to the retailer to stanch waste not only in fresh produce but in every form they can. Meijer, a U.S. superstore chain with 254 outlets in six Midwestern states, is applying a number of levers in the effort to cut spoilage, says Erik Petrovskis, director of environmental compliance and sustainability.
It starts with Meijer’s ordering processes in the store, he says. “We used to have a very manual, pen-on-paper process, and now we have moved to a computer-integrated management system. We’re using previous sales as an input to do a better job of predicting quantities at any given time so that our accuracy cuts down on food waste.”
Meijer’s second lever is quick shelving of perishables, “within 24 hours” of receiving them at the store. The third instrument is relationships with outfits whose express purpose is to cut food waste such as Flashfood, for selling near-expiration food (see sidebar on page 41) and the nonprofit food bank network Feeding America.
“Every store is aligned with a food bank,” Petrovskis explains. “When food reaches its sell-by date, we can direct that to each store’s partner food bank and redistribute as needed.” In 2021, Meijer donated more than 13.6 million pounds of food, or about a whopping 147 pounds of food each day per store.
After all other solutions have wrung waste out of the system, Meijer pays to send any leftover food waste, through third parties, to animal feed or composting outfits.
Restaurants also are important for cutting food waste in western countries, again both for their own benefit and for their customers’ sake. “With inflation, a lot of [operators] are worried about shrinkage and waste for cost reasons,” says Rich Shank, senior principal and vice president of innovation at Technomic, a research and foodservice consulting firm. “And there also are environmental reasons and perceptions, and the relationship to hunger and those sorts of things. That is an issue that people do take seriously. There are limitations on what restaurants can do in terms of food donations and things like that, so they try to make up for it in other ways.”
Ordering the right amounts is important for many fast-food restaurants that rely on premade components. “It’s more of a spoilage problem,” Shank says. “The concerns of a McDonald’s or Burger King are that they are trying to solve the food waste problem in the cadence of ordering in the back door. Everyone’s trying to figure out how to get smarter forecasts right now.”
But waste issues multiply for the many other chains, independent restaurants, and corporate and institutional foodservice operations that do scratch preparation of their food. They are trying to parse and prepare ingredients to optimize them.
Chipotle, for instance, has been attacking food waste on a number of fronts. Lately, it has taken steps such as testing a kitchen system that runs on a digital management platform designed by PreciTaste. The system uses AI to generate up-to-date “demand” projections, providing carefully calculated prompts to kitchen staff on how much of each ingredient to prepare and when.
The chain also donates food to The Farmlink Project, a nonprofit founded and run by college students, that distributes unsold produce to food banks.
“We want to be talking about things that we do that are right for food and right for you,” says Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol. “That’s why you see us being front and center on sustainability, farming, and animal welfare. It will take time, but we would love for the entire food supply chain to pivot to this.”
But “this” can be a delicate thing, in part because Chipotle’s supply chain requires some slack to stay in business. Niccol acknowledges the company is finding that some of its more than 3,000 U.S. restaurants are “still running out of lettuce at the end of the day” even though Chipotle has had the time to rectify supply chain issues that arose during the pandemic. “You have to do the forecast right to get the prep right,” says Niccol. “We’ll figure out how to do it, but it negatively impacts the experience down the line.”
Whether they bring it home in a sack from the supermarket or in a doggie bag from the restaurant, consumers stashing food in their refrigerators remain the biggest wasters of all. In Capgemini’s survey, 12% of consumers admitted that 100% of their leftovers from cooked meals had been wasted in their homes in the preceding month.
But more consumers are acting conscientiously. The same survey reveals that 81% are using leftover food over several meals rather than discarding it, 85% freeze food to increase its shelf life, and 74% prioritize use of food according to its shelf life.
Also, there is growing discussion on social media about how to salvage orphan foods. “There is rising significance in social [media] on how to use leftovers or healthier foods in the home, with much of the discussion about how we can reduce food waste ourselves through using and sharing recipes and ideas with friends and [online] influencers,” says Capgemini’s Mazza.
Food-related brands are rushing into this space as a marketing gambit. For example, two years ago Kroger introduced an app called Chefbot, an AI-powered recipe tool that pairs the groceries in users’ refrigerators with recommendations and inspiration to make a meal out of them instead of ultimately tossing them in the garbage. Meanwhile, Unilever’s Hellmann’s brand of mayonnaise created a website that showcases “flexipes,” which are recipes that are flexible and can be used to make meals with some of the most frequently wasted ingredients.
Another aspect of consumer behavior that will cut food waste is the increasing move toward online grocery shopping. E-commerce purchases rose to 24% of total food in 2021 from 5% before the pandemic, estimates Capgemini, and is expected to increase to nearly one-third of all food in the United States in the next several years.
“This will dramatically change the food culture in stores around reduced waste for two reasons,” Mazza says. “First, consumers won’t be in the stores as often requiring bountiful stocks, and second, what online requires from stores doing delivery is extremely accurate inventories.”
Western governments increasingly are leaning into regulations that require food sellers to do something productive with their waste. In 2016, France began requiring retailers of a certain size to donate their excess edible, unsold products to a food assistance organization. Similar efforts are afoot in Germany, the Netherlands, and Australia.
In New York in 2022, a law took effect that requires businesses and institutions that generate an annual average of two tons of wasted food per week to either donate excess edible food or recycle remaining food scraps if they are within 25 miles of an organics recycler such as a composting facility or anaerobic digester. That law amplifies a regulation that already was in place in New York City and joins other Northeastern states and California, where there are restrictions on landfilling food waste.
“We’re going to see more regulation around the world,” predicts Mazza. “And it’s only a matter of time before we see more of these regulations come to the United States.”
The last and maybe most important line of defense in the battle against food waste is not-for-profits, ranging from food banks to programs that are trying to close the loop on food waste in a mighty way.
“Retailers are ordering excess food because they don’t know how their customers want food,” says Divya Sridhar, manager of climate resiliency and sustainability for the not-for-profit Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and project manager for an organization called Circular Cleveland that is a joint venture with the city.
Circular Cleveland has undertaken many initiatives to mitigate food waste and to try to ensure that every last calorie available in excess food is applied to the best possible use to feed human beings and, failing that, to find other final resting places. These efforts include helping groups collect unsold produce from local farms and getting it processed, packaged, and sold to local schools, as well as processing leftover produce from the city’s West Side Market and redistributing it to the community or sending it to composting.
Meanwhile, Second Servings of Houston picks up “everything: dairy, meat, prepared meals that are individually reheatable, bagged salads, and party platters from the deli sections” of supermarkets, says Barbara Bronstein, founder and CEO of the nonprofit group. “It’s available because retailers don’t want to miss a sale, and there’s also a need to have bountiful displays in the store because people expect the shelves to be bountiful,” she says. “So it’s hard to balance that. And they just can’t predict with that much certainty exactly what will sell.”
Indeed, despite growing consciousness about the problem of food waste, the last bastion in the way of progress is human indifference to the toll. “We start out by educating charities because those are the people who can least afford to throw away food,” Bronstein says. “But this is something the entire public needs to understand.”
App-happy consumers are enjoying more ways to apply their mobile phone mastery to save money and help preserve the planet by purchasing food from supermarkets that otherwise would be wasted.
Flashfood, for instance, connects consumers to heavily discounted food nearing its best-by date. On a weekly basis, several hundred thousand people are checking Flashfood to see what items are available at local stores, reserving what they want, and going to the customer-service counters to pick them up from coolers and storage racks.
“It can be chicken breasts, bagged salads, or whatever,” says Josh Domingues, founder and CEO of Flashfood. “It shows the discounted prices, up to 50% off. And you see the quantities change in real time.”
Flashfood has partnerships with U.S. grocery retailers primarily in the Midwest and Northeast, as well as with Loblaw’s, the biggest supermarket chain in Canada, where Flashfood is based.
“It’s a fantastic program,” says Meijer executive Erik Petrovskis. The Midwestern supercenter retailer has partnered with Flashfood for a year and a half and already diverted more than three million pounds of food, Petrovskis says. “From our customer insights work, we know that food waste is a very important issue for them, and we also know that providing value is very important. This is a great opportunity to hit both of those levers.”
The supply of such foods is built into shopping patterns, Domingues says. “Fresh food in the last 48 or 72 hours of shelf life just doesn’t get purchased,” he explains. “And consumers are always reaching to the back of shelves, so near-dated food keeps getting pushed to the front.” Typical Flashfood customers, he says, are young families and senior citizens—two demographics that can be especially motivated to save money on food purchases.
“A lot of people are using this because they’re having a hard time right now, and it’s a way to save money on food,” Domingues says. “Plus it’s a thrifty, cool way to shop. And for stores, it’s an interesting way to interact with the community and help people afford food.”
Another app, leaning more heavily on the cool factor, is Too Good To Go, which sells a “surprise bag” of leftovers from restaurant chains and near-expiring food from retailers to consumers for about one-third of its retail cost. Shoppers select a time to pick up their bag, typically within a 30-minute or one-hour window.
And while they can expect items with tomato sauce if they’re getting the bag from a pizza place and can select specific categories such as “ready meals” or fresh-cut produce when they’re dealing with Safeway, what’s inside the carry-away is pretty much a mystery.
“It’s a simple solution to a dynamic problem,” says Tyler Simmons, head of key accounts and enterprise sales in the United States for Too Good To Go, which is based in Denmark and participates in 17 different metro markets across Europe and North America. “The selection of food that’s available at the end of its retail life is going to vary day by day and by location.”