Dig into food recycling applications | Sierra Club
About 40% of America’s food supply ends up unsold or uneaten every year. That’s about 219 pounds per person, rotting in fields, swirling in sewers, or funneled to incinerators and landfills that contribute to climate change. Not to mention all the resources—water, energy, fertilizer, pesticides, land, labor, and transportation—that went into producing those wasted calories. But a new generation of food enhancement apps is set to change all that.
Some sell wacky products at reduced prices, to the Hungry Harvest, Imperfect Foods and Misfits Market. Others, like OLIO, encourage sharing between neighbours. But most focus on food salvage — that is, salvaging goodies destined for restaurant and retail bins, including Flashfood, Till, and Too Good To Go.
“Food banks are great at what they do, but they’re not that nimble,” says Jonathan Deutsch, a professor at Drexel University and director of its food lab. “If you have a wedding with nice prime rib and cake at 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday night, there’s no way to get it to people through a traditional food bank system. But using the power of technology, it could be on the tables the next day.
Deutsch is also a fan of less than perfect products. Take the tomatoes: for the fruit to really shine on supermarket shelves, it needs to be shipped firm. “They’re not going to overflow with ripeness and juice,” he stresses. “So sometimes the most delicious, ripest produce you get is the ugliest!” Deutsch also recommends cuts of fish beyond the thick center fillet. The smaller pieces “taste exactly the same and may be easier to cook, depending on what you do with them. And you can get great deals on that and broken prawns for pasta dishes or paella. (Learn more about the movement to reduce seafood waste!)
Interestingly, the biggest adopters of recycled foods tend to be baby boomers, according to a study Deutsch helped author. “I think part of it has to do with the thrifty mentality that a lot of us who are older grew up with. Plus, it’s a matter of culinary common sense and common sense.
Plenty of room at the table
The question of who can – and “should” – use these smartphone apps often arises. Nearly 14 million US households (10.5%) didn’t have enough available calories at some point in 2020, according to the USDA. But experts say apps aren’t taking food out of families’ mouths disadvantaged. Deutsch explains: “The problem is so vast that there is always an abundance of food for those who need it. Second, any food emergency organization prefers cash to food. So if a restaurant can make a financial donation [to a hunger operation] it’s much better than bringing four sandwiches to a local shelter.
Claire Oliverson, marketing manager of the Too Good To Go application in the United States, confirms this: “According to ReFed’s Insight Engine, only 3.5% of [surplus] the food is in fact given. Our absolute rule of thumb for partners is to give first and give as much as you can,” she says. “If you have extra food, that’s where we come in. It’s really hard for food insecurity organizations to pick up small amounts or perishable foods most of the time. What we’re trying to do is separate the issues and say, “Support both!”
Launched in Copenhagen in 2016, Too Good To Go has its roots in the European activist community, which started the app without seed capital. The B Corp now has more than 1,000 employees worldwide. It hit the US in fall 2019 and already has more than two million users in a dozen cities, who have saved 1.6 million meals here. Users can buy deals on goodie bags from local businesses: contents range from barbecue coffee, desserts, pizzas, sandwiches, and even canned goods nearing their best before dates.
Oliverson points out that contrary to common wisdom around expiration labels, this food is safe. “We have a campaign going on in Europe, which is ‘look, smell, taste, don’t waste’ – basically, use your senses!” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration agrees: Don’t instinctively throw away foods whose labels appear to be out of date. These simply indicate manufacturers’ best guesses as to when peak freshness, flavor and quality will begin to decline. Every year, Americans throw away $32 billion worth of consumables because of confusion on this front. Closer to home, it costs the average family $1,365 to $2,275, according to a landmark study by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Like many in the food rescue space, Flashfood VP of Marketing Kate Leadbeater would like to see more clarity and education on labeling. “There needs to be some standardization to make it easier for consumers.” The Flashfood app allows shoppers to select groceries at reduced prices, saving them $540 per year on average. “It gives them access to more variety of foods, healthier foods, and things they can find joy in,” she says. “Often, when your budget is really tight, the choice is limited. Maybe some of the things that your family is passionate about – or have fond memories of – aren’t on the shopping list because of the cost.” She mentions a mother delighted to introduce her children to mangoes and a cash-strapped elderly person who could finally afford to fish again as two heartwarming letters the company received.
“Food waste is a very urgent problem. You have a very small window to redistribute that food so that nothing good goes to waste,” says Leadbeater. “Digital solutions are the way to do that.”
“You have a very small window to redistribute that food so nothing good goes to waste – digital solutions are the way to do that.”
Refining the role of technology in food rescue
Some see apps as works in progress, like Tanja Hester, author of Activism portfolio, which breaks down the financial power of consumers when it comes to influencing change. “If you buy an imperfect box, it will contain a ton of food that hasn’t been produced anywhere near you,” she points out. “They ship stuff all over the country, sometimes out of the country. And the products are usually not wrapped in plastic, which is good. But if you get eggs, they will put them in a plastic carton, which is wrapped in bubble wrap. They will now take back ice packs and cooler bags, but not boxes. So you’re still generating a pretty massive amount of junk.
The Imperfect Foods website explains that this packaging is 100% recycled and delivers in batches to neighborhoods, with emissions equivalent to taking 2,800 cars off the road for a year. The company also cites a study by Generation Investment Management that online ordering emits 17% less CO2 than physical purchases by individuals.
Still, Hester recommends reviewing apps carefully to make sure they’re well-integrated locally and in line with all of your values. She encourages consumers to go beyond quick, practical action — and sweet relief on the food budget front — to push for systemic changes that increase equity and access to food.
At the end of the day, she applauds people who try to take action. “[My] the criticism is about the means of production, not about the proletariat,” she laughs. “I fully respect the idea that [app companies] you have to start somewhere and then learn! But hailing these things as a magic bullet is probably a bit premature.
Patrick Lydon, director of the urban ecology studio City as Nature, echoes this philosophy. “These applications provide a useful and necessary service. However, they are also a sign of a tech industry focused on treating symptoms rather than root causes. Food waste could be more comprehensively and equitably addressed if tackled at the community level, with neighborhood farms, local and regional food cooperatives, regenerative agriculture networks, and community-supported models of agriculture .
“These approaches can simultaneously address hunger, the environment, and food waste, while empowering communities and not relying on third-party technology business models.”