Where Is The App To Solve Food Waste?

Food scarcity is a sleeping giant.

Not only is it highly politicized, its also the result of many, many factors that are difficult to tackle with a single strategy.

Take food waste for example. In the US, most people believe that food waste is a function of purchasing too much food, throwing it out after expiration and living beyond our means. While this may be true to SOME extent, this reflects only a small portion of the story (get it? portion?). The truth is, globally, the world wastes 1 in 4 calories it produces, and this waste does not come from a single area of the food distribution chain, but instead is contributed by multiple factors across socio-economic classes and geography.

Source: http://www.unep.org/pdf/WRI-UNEP_Reducing_Food_Loss_and_Waste.pdf

That being said, for wealthy, industrialized countries, the majority of food waste DOES happen towards the end of the food chain, primarily after production and during distribution, purchase and consumption.

  • If a farmer harvests a piece of fruit that is not visually appealing, she will throw it out or leave it on the ground.
  • If a grocery store receives fruit they fear may not look pleasing to costumers, they will throw it out.
  • Customers, who are confused by notoriously cryptic expiration date labels, will throw out food before it has expired.
  • Similarly, consumers will purchase too much food and throw the majority of it away.

For many third world countries, the majority of food waste happens DURING harvest and production. This can be the result of poor storage techniques that a) results in produce lasting shorter and b) insect infestation or disease that drops production. Distribution can also be an issue that dwindles what is harvested before reaching supermarket shelves.

With multiple contributing factors, how can we solve the food waste crisis?

While walking through my local grocery store, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea while pondering the issue:

“What if I created an app that allowed people with excess food to give it away to those who are in need? An AirBNB for foodsharing!”

After the preliminary rush of excitement wore off, I checked the web to see if anyone had tried the idea. Upon closer examination, it looked as though a few attempts had been made, with mixed results.

The Logo for LeftoverSwap

One app, titled LeftoverSwap, had missed the mark. Sure, the app was well designed, but its potentially beneficial uses were masked by a half eaten watermelon displayed prominently on the app icon, with one comment in the review page that read “Only item in all of SF available was a half eaten pickle”.

Unfortunately it did not catch on

Clearly, LeftoverSwap suffers from a positioning problem. The idea is sound, but the messaging, branding and product/market fit may be holding the product back. Whereas my idea would involve items that haven’t been opened yet but are close to expiring, this iteration involved giving away half eaten pickles to strangers.

Another version of this concept, only available in London, is OLIO. I like OLIO because it positions itself to organizations and stores looking for an easy way to standardize the difficult task of giving away excess food to those in need.

That being said, all of the options I saw, at best, seemed to be topical solutions to a deep seeded problem (alright, that’s my last one, swear). Perhaps the sharing economy model is the wrong way to solve this problem, or maybe it was just being applied to the wrong area of the distribution channel. Either way, it gave me hope to know that attempts are being made to solve the food waste problem.

A few months ago, I stumbled onto a product/service that I truly believe is revolutionary. The organization is called GiveDirectly.Org, and aside from financial and political backing from Google.org , is special because of its simple nature.

GiveDirectly.org donates capital to citizens of Kenya and Uganda, with the promise that $0.91 of every dollar donated to Kenya and $0.85 of every dollar donated to Uganda is given DIRECTLY to those in need. Through a special program, GiveDirectly.org model has proven that the stigma of giving money directly to those in need is unfounded. What’s more, GiveDirectly found almost all recipients used the funds for life-affirming purposes as opposed to feeding bad habits like drugs or alcohol.

Rather than give to an organization that spends your money on services or operating costs, GiveDirectly.org gives the money to those in need, with the hope that sufficient funds will, among other things, bring recipients out of the cycle of food scarcity and food poverty. If you look on their website, you can see that they have painstakingly researched their model and have the figures to back it up.

What I really like about this model of giving is that, from a psychological perspective, our donations provide a safety net to those in need. No longer focused on hunger, a recipient can put his or her attention on things that really matter to them, such as building a roof over their house or buying a cow so they can produce their own milk. Ultimately, it provides the security of not having to worry where one’s next meal will come from.

From what I’ve seen, this is truly a ‘killer app’ that provides relief to those who suffer from food scarcity and offers an avenue to tackle food waste in developing countries. While it focuses on one small area of the food distribution channel, its impact is far reaching (farmers can become self-sufficient, purchase better tools for storage and store food longer) and its simplicity makes it scalable.

Even though this model of giving, in its current form, is a solution to international food scarcity where currency and inflation make this model optimal, I believe it shows that relief is possible across the world.

What will the solution for food waste and food scarcity look like in the US? If the perfect service is built, will we even adopt it? Or will our unconscious behaviors and attitudes around consumption hamper our ability to evenly distribute the abundance of food we are already producing?

We must focus on how to utilize the food we are already producing BEFORE searching for methods that increase food production. It’s my personal belief that this is the path we must take in order to solve world hunger.

Whatever the solution may be, hopefully, someday, with the right tools, we will welcome each other’s half-eaten pickles with open arms (But let’s hope it never gets to that).