As the quest to divert food waste continues, among the advances being developed in the industry are food waste software applications. Some tools enable restaurants and retailers to match would-be trashed food to charities while others enable generators to sell perishable food online at a discount.
An app’s role depends on the level of the food recovery hierarchy it’s intended to address. Many are designed to prevent food from being wasted in the first place. Some developers are focusing on secondary marketplaces, salvaging surplus food from farms or restaurants, and others are facilitating recycling and addressing hauling efficiency and route density.
These tools demonstrate how food that has historically been at margins (for example, nearing label expiration dates) can be brought into the mainstream through creative commercial strategies and innovation in food donation, says JoAnne Berkenkamp, senior advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s food and agriculture program.
Still, while they have potential, these technologies are in an early phase of development. End users’ unique needs are being identified, and there are glitches tied to practicality to be worked out.
But some developers are making headway. Chicago-based Zero Percent, which connects grocers and restaurants with local nonprofits, has rescued more than 1.1 million meals from more than 100 businesses to deliver to more than70 nonprofits.
LeanPath was founded in 2004 by a team of Portland, Oregon-based entrepreneurs and works with food service industry clients to reduce waste. LeanPath customers—commercial kitchens—have reduced food waste by 50 percent and saved up to 6 percent in food budgets.
Many food recovery technology platforms focus on donation matching, connecting food donors with recipients in real-time. They address multiple issues such as providing resources to small organizations, says Sarah Vared, interim director of Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED).
“Smaller donations [less than 50 pounds] are expensive to pick up, leading many organizations to set a minimum donation amount,” Vared says. “With the software, organizations can see multiple small-volume donations that are available, then create an efficient collection route.”
These tools’ real-time features also facilitate donation of extremely perishable foods, such as prepared meals from events. And waste that occurs along distribution routes can be rerouted fast.
Some applications also offer enhanced features, such as assistance with tax incentive reporting, analysis to determine what foods are donated and metrics to show environmental and economic benefits of food donation.
But a big challenge left to be resolved is ensuring a mechanism for dealing with transportation and refrigeration.
“These elements must be addressed because we are talking about moving food. There needs to be a way to get it from one place to another safely,” says Berkenkamp.
Berkenkamp says there is talk about an Uber-type model to tap into on-call drivers online.
The most effective software-based platforms include a mechanism for coordinating food-safe transportation, either directly or by engaging volunteers, to make it economically feasible for all stakeholders.
Gebni in New York City takes advantage of the Internet with a model that bypasses the transportation issue. This online ordering app serves as a marketplace, connecting restaurants with surplus food with local consumers. Foods that do not move fast are discounted.
“We analyze order activity in real-time,” says Mohamed Merzouk, co-founder of Gebni. “If a burger is ordered frequently, it’s sold at full price. If it’s ordered less frequently, it’s discounted. This prevents excess inventory, ultimately helping to reduce waste.”
ReFED’s “Waste Tracking and Analytics,” one of its Roadmap solutions, provides restaurants and prepared-food providers with data on wasteful practices to inform behavior and operational changes.
“We identified that this solution has the potential to divert 571 thousand tons of food waste per year, while generating $1.3 billion in economic value,” Vared says. “Some of these tools utilize technology and applications, but they can also be as simple as hard-copy, waste-tracking sheets.”
Secondary resellers (businesses that acquire surplus food directly from manufacturers/producers for discounted retail) could potentially divert 176 thousand tons of food annually, while generating $37 million in economic value, she says.
In April, ReFED will launch a database of apps and other innovations to prevent food waste, to recover and/or recycle. It will be available for entrepreneurs, investors, foundations, and businesses to enlighten on the landscape of food waste innovation.
“We are excited about the full spectrum of food waste innovation we’re already seeing–ranging from nonprofits to for-profits and covering the entire supply chain,” Vared says. “We only expect to see the level of innovation, as well as scalability and replicability, continue to grow over the coming years.”