Americans throw away 40 percent of food each year. That adds up to 31 million tons of food put in landfills, which adds 17 percent to our total carbon emissions, uses 2 percent of the nation's total energy, and wastes a whopping $165 billion annually, according to 2012 study by the National Resources Defense Council.
But a few startups have harnessed the power of social media and mobile technology to revolutionize how we deal with food waste. These relatively simple technologies have the ability to affect massive change in the food and agriculture industries.
"What we know is we have a major crisis and we need to tap into the power of self-organization, crowdsourcing, and directly engaging community members," said Nick Papadopoulos, CEO of Cropmobster, a California-based startup that uses an online community and mobile alerts to connect farmers who have perishable surplus food to people that will buy it.
"The answer for each situation is in each community, and we need to unleash this broadcasting system so people can understand the problem and find a solution," he said.
Social media answering community needs
On a random January day, farmers in Sonoma County, California needed to thin their supply of satsuma tangerines before they went bad. They sent email and text alerts through Cropmobster, and within two hours, 27 volunteers harvested 792 pounds of the citrus, which was then donated to seven area hunger relief groups.
Cropmobster originally started on Facebook, when Papadopoulos had 40 pounds of extra broccoli from his family's farm that was about to wilt. It was destined for the compost pile, so Bloomfield Organics posted a Facebook status advertising the vegetable at a bargain price if it could be picked up that day. He had a taker within an hour.
Papadopoulos saw the opportunity, and created a website in a matter of days with Gary Cedar of Press Tree, a tech design company. Now, anyone with surplus food at risk of perishment can post on the site. It can be for money, a donation, a freebie, or a hunger relief gleaning of leftover crops. The alert is shared via email, social media, and text alert. Cropmobster, which now reaches 12 California counties, tracks the transaction time manually based on what the farmers post. People treat it like an emergency now, said Papadopoulos.
"We had a professional chef posting the contents of her fridge and it was gone within the hour," he said. "The fastest was a taker within 19 minutes of a post and it was gone within the hour."
Perhaps the most inspiring thing about this model is that the community organizes it themselves. Cropmobster is simply the platform, the enabler. And Papadopoulos is absolutely inspired by that. He speaks about this movement with an urgency that is contagious. Because he and his family are long-time farmers, he knows about the food supply chain. Social media and mobile platforms are easily localized to help with community needs, which in turn empowers local food movements.
"The number one goal for me is that communities are not only recognizing food waste is a crisis, but that we become a trusted partner of communities to make sure as much financial value and awesomeness and creativity is created," he said. "But we are keeping these things in those communities."
The world of food surplus is unpredictable and often spontaneous, making it difficult to build a sustainable business around, according to Dana Gunders, a food and agriculture project scientist for NRDC. But, she added, social media is the perfect platform to empower a movement that relies on such a fast turnaround time.
"The technology is pretty low tech for these things," she said. "It's not particularly sophisticated. What you need is the critical mass of audience that can broadcast it."
The U.N. reports that one-third of the world's food is thrown away each year, which adds up to $750 billion that is completely wasted. That means that about 28 percent of the world's agricultural land is used to produce food that is eventually wasted. This leads to 3.3 billion tons of excess greenhouse gases emitted to the planet's atmosphere.
To raise international awareness about the food waste crisis, Papadopoulos created Food Waste News after Cropmobster became so successful. It is one of the only news aggregation sites about food waste, and allows him and his team to share information about the innovative ways people are trying to reduce it.
The website itself has become a community, linking to other social media, crowdfunding, and crowdsourcing platforms worldwide that work to raise awareness and reduce food waste.
"I don't believe in competition in this sector," Papadopoulos said. "In almost every case, [these businesses] are totally complementary of each other."
Good thing, because social media and mobile technology startups are popping up everywhere to help solve the food waste crisis. A few of the standouts are:
- Food Cowboy, a D.C.-based startup, uses a mobile app to allow truckers and food companies to reroute imperfect produce to charities, spoiled produce to composting sites, and surplus food from local restaurants to food banks and soup kitchens. To make money, they charge a commission on each transaction. For 10 cents per pound, food banks can buy as much as they want.
- LeanPath is a complete tracking system with its own hardware that uses a camera, a scale, and a touch screen interface to gather and transmit food waste data. The data is then sent to a cloud-based warehouse that spots waste reduction opportunities. The Portland-based service is used by hospitals, schools, hotels, restaurants, and businesses throughout the world.
- FoodStar organizes and alerts shoppers of flash sales of produce that is near expiration or doesn't meet aesthetic requirements. Members receive email and/or text alerts of sales in their area with the date, time, food on sale, and location of the store.
- Plan Zheroes, a UK-based startup, created an online interactive map to link places with food surplus to charities and people who need it. Right now, it's free for anyone in London, and donors that use it receive green ratings through the website as well. An estimated 20 million tons of food is wasted in Britain, and 4 million people suffer from food poverty.
Using tech to fight hunger and create a movement
One in six Americans is unsure where their next meal will come from. As of 2012, 49 million Americans lived in food insecure households, according to Feeding America.
Statistics like that led Rajesh Karmani to create Zero Percent, a mobile app and web platform that connects restaurants and grocers with extra food with hunger relief nonprofits and programs in Chicago.
It started as a project at the University of Illinois. Karmani noticed how unreliable some of the food donation boxes and services around campus were. He dug deeper and saw how much food was being wasted by most small businesses and the university's dining halls.
Coincidentally, his friend—and Zero Percent's CTO—Caleb Phillips, was working on a similar project in Boulder, Co. After partnering with a national nonprofit, Karmani and Phillips moved Zero Percent to Chicago, joined the Impact Engine accelerator, received funding, and got an office in October 2012. Zero Percent now reroutes 1,500 pounds of surplus food a day.
Charities that receive the food donations must be 501(c)(3) nonprofits with a meal or hunger program in place. Donors can post once a day for free, but for unlimited donation pickup and data, the program now runs at $30 per month. Donors receive significant tax write-offs by using the service as well. Virtually any food business in Chicago can use the service, from local grocers and restaurants to chains like Einstein Bros. Bagels.
In a big city like Chicago, the challenge lies in logistics. "It's hard to move the surplus from point A to point B when the amount varies every day," Karmani said. "It was an app for matchmaking initially, but now the platform allows us to look at logistics, cost effectiveness, and matching."
But for farm community-oriented startups like Cropmobster, logistics haven't been as difficult. Keeping up with the program as it grows so rapidly is.
"A lot of what we are doing is complimenting things already done and some days we don't know how things are unfolding, so there's a lot of chaos and uncertainty," Papadopoulos said. "At the end of each day, we have a job to do, and it's 'Can we find a home for these potatoes or these kale stems and this makes it a lot easier.'"
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.