A New Life for Old Food

How technology reduces waste by getting excess edibles to those who can still use them.


American corpulence hit new highs in 2014. According to a Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey, 27.7 percent of all U.S. adults now qualify as obese, a gain of more than two percentage points since 2008.

Such metrics might suggest we're eating everything in sight, but nothing could be further from the truth. At every link in the industrial food chain, we're leaving perfectly edible fare on the table. Overplanted crops rot in fields. Disfigured cucumbers are culled at packaging facilities. Bunches of bananas, lost in the crowd, fail to make lasting connections with consumers in the highly competitive meat market of the Whole Foods produce section.

And even the butternut squash that makes it into your refrigerator or onto your plate at the Olive Garden is far from sure to make it down your gullet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations all estimate that 30 to 40 percent of the food that gets produced is never actually consumed.

There's an upside to our profligacy. If we consumed every calorie we now produce, we'd have to start using shipping containers as coffins. Grocery store dumpsters spilling over with surplus pluots and still-edible hot dogs have emerged as an attention-getting symbol for muckrakers eager to illustrate the excesses of our broken corporate food industry. But that's not the only way to view these supersized horns o' plenty. They may be wasteful, they may be perverse, but they're also evidence of a system that is working so efficiently, it allows millions of people to essentially treat food like they treat water or electricity—as a resource that's always on tap and so cheap it's often deployed without much thought.

Unfortunately, not everyone is benefiting from this bounty. In 2013, the USDA reports, 14.3 percent of U.S. households experienced "food insecurity," meaning they "had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources." Obviously, there are opportunities to distribute surplus food more effectively.

Wasted food also has environmental costs. "Throwing out 1 pound of beef wastes as much water as taking a 5 hour shower," an ad from an Oakland, California, nonprofit called Food Shift advises. And it's not just that wasted food equals wasted water and wasted energy. The great majority of uneaten food ends up in landfills, where it ultimately turns into toxic greenhouse gas. According to an NRDC report from 2012, "the decomposition of uneaten food accounts for 23 percent of all methane emissions in the United States."

Composting produces less methane than landfill decomposition does, especially when increased aeration methods are employed. Thus some municipalities have begun to adopt policies to encourage it. San Francisco, for example, has ostensibly imposed mandatory composting on its residents since 2009, though it has yet to start actually fining scofflaws. This June, Seattle will reportedly do just that—single-family properties whose garbage "contains more than 10 percent recyclables or food waste by volume" will be fined $1. Commercial businesses that commit the same indiscretion will be fined $50.

While this seems like a pretty good scheme to incentivize littering, more ambitious ways to discourage food waste do exist—at least for those who still possess a healthy appetite for technology and marketing. Not everyone does, of course. We live in an era where local, organic, farm-to-fork food is privileged as "real" food, and everything else that does not meet that standard is suspect. In this milieu, food waste is typically characterized as a consequence of overzealous commercialism. Think of supersized portions, buy-two-get-one-free promotions, and aesthetic standards that require every piece of fruit to exhibit the unblemished complexion and symmetrical pulchritude of Kim Kardashian.

But ultimately food waste happens because there aren't really good, efficient markets for castoffs and leftovers.

Traditionally, some entrepreneurs and philanthropists have capitalized on the value of unwanted food by creating new venues in which to distribute it. Grocery Outlets, a chain that started in Berkeley, California, in 1946, specializes in purchasing closeouts, overruns, and other excess product from manufacturers and selling them at a significant discount to consumers. Food banks cultivate relationships with farmers, caterers, restaurants, and grocery stores that allow them to obtain surplus food for free or at greatly reduced costs, which they then distribute to their own clientele.

But these are mostly niche efforts. Grocery Outlets has 210 stores. Food banks depend heavily on volunteer labor and often lack the equipment and infrastructure (trucks, refrigerated storage space, etc.) that would allow them to collect and distribute surplus food efficiently. In the U.S. alone, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates, more than 35 million tons of food gets thrown out, because more efficient distribution is a significant logistical challenge. Items that sellers are offering are highly perishable and always changing. The needs of buyers are often ephemeral as well. A perfect match may exist only for a few hours and at a very specific price.

Now, however, modern technologies make it much easier to match disparate sellers with disparate buyers—think eBay, Airbnb, and Uber, all of which built huge new marketplaces around underutilized assets that were hard to sell at scale through traditional channels. But perhaps even more than spare bedrooms and empty passenger seats, unwanted food is a product category that is tailor-made for the kinds of decentralized and dynamic commerce that the Internet and smartphones can enable.

In the San Francisco Bay area, a website called CropMobster allows any supplier in the food chain to post alerts about excess food it's trying to sell or give away. The posts are immediately distributed to the free service's users through email, social media, a mobile app, and the website itself. In one recent posting, a farm-stand operator offered tomato plants for a $1 each. In another, a large egg operation sought a buyer who might have a monthly need for 200,000 "spent hens"—i.e., birds at the end of their productive egg-laying years but still potentially useful as food—at prices cheaper than chickens raised specifically for their meat would fetch.

In Washington, D.C., a for-profit startup called Food Cowboy bills itself as " meets Uber meets OpenTable." It's designed to help food banks, soup kitchens, and farmers—all of whom may have some use for imperfect foods—connect with truckers, distributors, wholesalers, and restaurants that need to unload food fast. When an intended recipient unexpectedly rejects a shipment because it fails to meet some specification, for example, the goods may nonetheless be edible.

Silicon Valley venture capitalists are not yet pouring millions into endeavors that hope to capture some of the value in the tens of billions of dollars of food we throw away each year. But ultimately sites like CropMobster and Food Cowboy will succeed, or not, based on their ability to scale—and that's what makes them so intriguing. For the most part, food system reformers have stressed a smaller-is-better doctrine. Family farms over factory farms. Modest portions over bottomless pasta bowls. Foods with five or fewer ingredients over more intensively processed fare.

But while marketplaces like Uber and Airbnb are intrinsically local phenomena, they're also global monoliths. An unwanted-food startup taking cues from small-batch, community-minded locavorists is unlikely to make much of a dent in the problem it hopes to solve. An aggressively ambitious platform for unwanted food that aspires to be Uber for leftovers and misshapen vegetables could connect huge numbers of buyers and sellers, though. And that increases the odds that the California egg farmer will find a customer somewhere in the world who can make use of 200,000 aging but potentially tasty spent hens each month.

In short, sometimes size correlates with thrift and stewardship. Many of the attributes that food system reformers have spent the last few decades decrying—speed, convenience, and a strong emphasis on the lowest possible price—are precisely what can lead to truly significant reductions in food waste. For anyone raised on a diet of heirloom sustainability, that will no doubt seem preposterous. But perhaps a few drops of organic maple syrup, diverted from a Trader Joe's dumpster and sold at a steep discount, will make the notion easier to swallow.