HomeScienceGeneticsHow technology tackles food waste from farm to fork

How technology tackles food waste from farm to fork

A third of food is wasted worldwide


December 3, 2022

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Ever since Susan Teaford started looking for cheap eats – looking for discounts as the due date approaches – the American retiree has reduced her grocery costs and made bargain hunting a virtue.

Now when Teaford needs groceries, she just checks the Flashfood app, which lists all sorts of goods nearing their expiration dates at her local store in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington, the reporter reported. Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Vegetables, fruit, bread, smoked fish, cuts of meat and more – everything for sale for half to two-thirds of the usual price in chains such as Giant and Meijer, while the clock is ticking on their shelf life.

The result: lower bills for Teaford even as prices rose post-pandemic – plus a deep sense of contentment.

“I hate wasting food and love bargains,” Teaford, 66, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as she baked up a rack of half-price ribs through the Flashfood app.

Teaford said she saved about $450 on her grocery bills this year — savings that prompted several of her neighbors to sign up as well.

“It just makes sense,” she said. “We’re just used to cutting back.”

Food waste apps not only save people money, they can also play a role in reducing climate change emissions. Agriculture, food processing and delivery all consume fossil fuels, while rising food production is a major driver of deforestation.

The world produces enough food for everyone, but about a third of that is lost or wasted in the supply chain, according to the United Nations, which says the average person wastes 74 kg of food each year.

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RISING PRICES

Food-waste apps have been around for years, but close observers say the recent economic chaos — from COVID-19 to the war in Ukraine — has increased their prominence and boosted adoption.

Flash foodnow in nearly 1,500 stores in North America, has been downloaded about 2.5 million times and says its user base has grown more than 40% in the past year alone as the cost of living has squeezed people’s budgets.

Inflation rose at its fastest rate since the 1970s in the United States to 8% this year, while Russia’s war in Ukraine and supply chain problems have pushed up food and energy prices.

According to government data, about 10% of US households – or 13.5 million households – are food insecure.

The food bank network feed America says hunger has been exacerbated by the pandemic due to job losses and poverty, especially among families with children and communities of color.

“The frequency with which people look at the app has increased as the price of groceries has risen,” said CEO Josh Domingues, who founded Flashfood in 2016.

Since then, the company says it has taken more than 50 million pounds (22.7 million kg) of food from landfills and saved shoppers more than $130 million.

“We are seeing incredible adoption of the Flashfood program,” said Sepideh Burkett, vice president of Store Experience at the Meijer supermarket chain, which has 240 stores.

Meijer was able to reduce in-store food waste with Flashfood by 10% in early testing, she said, as the supermarket chain works toward a 50% reduction by the end of the decade.

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TECH SOLUTIONS

The pandemic has fueled interest in food waste and how best to combat it, said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, a nonprofit that advocates for systemic change and hopes to halve U.S. food waste and loss by 2030.

“In recent years, we have not only seen an explosion in innovation around food waste reduction solutions, but we have also seen some of them succeed,” she said.

This has created a “flywheel effect,” with investments rising from $500 million in 2019 to $2 billion last year, she said.

Waste remains a challenge because it is so unpredictable and varied, Gunders said, ranging from unharvested fields, house scraps, windfalls or soggy canapés.

But “technology has come up with a new ability to broadcast information in real time to a whole group of people and make (part of) this food available,” Gunders said.

Called an app Too good to gofor example, tries to address the sheer amount of potential waste by having users place a $5 “order” at a restaurant, bakery, or other local outlet, which buys them a surprise bag of what needs to go before closing time.

“Retailers didn’t really have a solution” for food waste, says Lucie Basch, co-founder of the Copenhagen-based app that launched in 2016.

Big charities do a lot but can’t visit every urban bakery by closing time, she said, meaning a lot gets thrown out.

Typically, users get food worth three times what they pay.

“When COVID came and inflation got huge, it’s great to pay for just a third,” she said. “It’s a way to align your economic and environmental interests.”

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The approach has proved extremely attractive: Too Good to Go has nearly 70 million users in 17 countries, saving around 300,000 meals every day.

Apps have also helped the hungry as the pandemic has raised Americans’ awareness of poverty close to home, said Melissa Spiesman, chief operating officer of Food Rescue US.

The nonprofit has an app that connects farms, restaurants and others with thousands of volunteers in 21 states who pick up and deliver surplus food to soup kitchens, shelters and hunger relief organizations.

“In the beginning of COVID-19, businesses started closing or cutting their hours, and we were getting calls from everyone,” she said. “We were inundated with tons of food.”

Later, as supply chains went haywire, farms called, too, because they were short of workers or orders dried up.

“There was something that woke up in a lot of people,” she said. “More people are aware that there are services out there to help them, and more communities want to do good.”

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