New Technology Could Take a Bite Out of Food Waste

Screen to table: Online matchmaking isn’t just for lovers—it brings would-be wasted food and hungry people together.

Last December about 4,700 pounds of ripe strawberries froze in a delivery truck. When a Massachusetts retailer then rejected the berries, the event could easily have become a sadly unremarkable example of when bad things happen to good food. Luckily, Ryan Lee, the operations director at the Cambridge-based nonprofit Food for Free, spotted the unwanted fruit on Spoiler Alert, a new technology platform for finding a home for would-be wasted food. Within minutes, the strawberries were rescued from their landfill fate, destined instead to bring a rare burst of summer color and nutrition to local food pantries and meal programs.

Spoiler Alert, a startup developed at MIT and launched in late November, is one of a growing number of food tech companies seeking to provide this much-needed matchmaking service between farms and businesses with surplus edibles and food recovery agencies. On its web-based platform, transforming one more discard into one more healthful meal is just a few clicks away.

Up to 40 percent of the food produced in the United Sates never gets eaten. Meanwhile, one in every seven Americans struggles with food insecurity. This waste issue is a complicated beast, with losses occurring at every single link in the supply chain. Farms, for example, often don’t even bother harvesting imperfect-looking (but perfectly healthy) fruits and vegetables because retailers won’t accept them; grocery stores and other businesses regularly chuck food that’s nearing its (usually arbitrary) expiration date; in homes, poor meal planning and a dearth of composting opportunities lead to overworked garbage cans. The litany goes on and on.

Breaking this society-wide problem down into bite-size morsels helps. A report published yesterday by Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED) outlines a “road map” for reducing food waste in the United States by 20 percent within a decade. In it, the authors suggest various ways to help bridge the chasm between the quantities we’re growing and the people who need more on their plates.

Donation-matching software, like Spoiler Alert, is just one avenue for boosting food recovery. Food banks, pantries, soup kitchens, and other, similar organizations already receive and distribute almost 1.7 million tons of food every year. While that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at, ReFED estimates that an additional 1.1 million tons could potentially be recovered by 2025. That works out to about an extra 1.8 billion meals, with donation-matching software alone accounting for 250 million of them. Expanding federal tax benefits for food donations and standardizing the confusing patchwork of food safety laws across the country are other steps ReFED advocates recommend taking. According to the report, those two solutions have the potential to recover 638 million and 322 million meals a year, respectively.

The basic idea behind Spoiler Alert—and similar platforms like Chicago-based Zero Percent, California’s CopiaCommunity PlatesFood Cowboy, and the forthcoming, Google-funded Online Marketplace from Feeding America, a nationwide food bank network—is to provide a space to share information about potential donations in real time.

“A lot of food waste is happening because those organizations that have it—whether it’s healthy surplus food or valuable organic waste—aren’t connecting with other organizations that are in a position to do something really great with it,” says Ricky Ashenfelter, cofounder and CEO of Spoiler Alert.

Ideally, these user-friendly apps and web platforms will foster connections, move perishable food quickly, and make pickups and drop-offs easier to coordinate.

“This is a fantastic application of technology,” says Dana Gunders, a member of ReFED’s steering committee and a staff scientist at NRDC (disclosure). Trying to locate an organization that’s ready to receive a load of excess food at a moment’s notice, she says, can sometimes be a waste of another precious resource: time. “Using technology to broadcast this availability and find an interested recipient saves time for the food donor and allows recipient agencies access to more donors than before.”

Transportation, Gunders notes, continues to be a barrier. While online marketplaces can easily put would-be donors and recipients in touch, they don’t necessarily offer a way to get the food from point A to point B. Those trips can be costly, especially for smaller donations.

Still, it’s early days for these platforms. Most have yet to be tested beyond the local level, and ReFED expects that, as with other new software systems, the playing field will eventually be winnowed down to a handful of the best.

Spoiler Alert, according to Ashenfelter, is designed to scale up, and the company recently received funding from start-up accelerator Techstars Boston to help it expand beyond New England. In the meantime, landfills will continue to receive ugly peaches, unspoiled meat, not-quite-stale loaves of bread, and, of course, many a truckload of perfectly sweet strawberries.

This post first appeared in onEarth.

By Clara Chaisson

Clara Chaisson is a Boston-based writer and Earthwire's associate editor. She previously reported for Audubon magazine, and recently graduated from Boston University with an M.S. in science journalism.