You’ve heard the apocalyptic food waste statistics on repeat these past couple years: The United States wastes 40 percent of its food, while one in seven Americans go hungry. Farms lose 20 percent of their product to unsold surplus and “ugly” produce. Nearly 30 percent of the food we bring into our homes ends up in the garbage. The reality is difficult to swallow, and the problems we face are as complex as they are widespread.
Food waste is not only an insult to the hungry, but it will affect our wallets for decades to come. The global food industry is responsible for 50 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the 2014 UN Climate Summit, and average global income is expected to be 23 percent less by century’s end than it would have been without climate change. When one-third of food is wasted globally, we’re also wasting the entire chain of resources it took to produce it. More directly, though, food waste results in billions of dollars trucked to U.S. landfills annually—$218 billion, to be exact, according to ReFed.
But wherever there is massive inefficiency, you’ll find a cohort of entrepreneurs who see opportunity. In the last year, companies like Imperfect Produce, Spoiler Alert, and Misfit Juicery have seized the spotlight. They may be the best known, but they’re not the only companies cleverly transforming our wasteful system. Organizations in smaller pockets of the country are making a difference in their communities. Here are the seven most promising food waste projects you haven’t heard of.
Come late, pay less. With BuffetGo, a startup launched in August, you can save money, fight food waste, and eat like a king with heavily discounted closing-time meals at 35 buffet-style restaurants across southern California, New York City, and Chicago. Take away a $13 lunch platter from Tandoori Garden in Anaheim, CA for $4 between 2:30pm and 3pm, or a Jimmy’s House $17 dinner buffet in New York for $5 between 9:30pm and 10pm.
After crowdfunding and proving the concept this fall, BuffetGo landed an angel investor to jumpstart its growth. “Food waste is a big issue,” says co-founder Han Lee, “so you have companies focused on ugly fruit, grocery stores, waste in the home, sit-down restaurants. But few were focused on the buffet, so we’re keeping our objective targeted.”
Though one of its top customers in New York is, oddly, a Wall Street lawyer, BuffetGo’s target audiences are typically college students, millennials, and families of all income levels. “Social class shouldn’t determine the quality and volume of food you get,” Lee says. “No matter what, you should be able to have a full meal on your plate.”
It remains to be seen whether BuffetGo will experience long-term success, but the growth potential is huge. “Ninety percent of our partners reported throwing out 15 to 20 percent of their food every day,” Lee says. That’s a lot of unsold meals in the buffet world waiting for a hungry mouth.
Getting surplus to those in need. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, Tri Cycle Farms has galvanized a food recovery and distribution system in a city with nearly twice the national poverty rate. Its volunteers collect prepared foods, dairy, and packaged items from local health food grocers three times a week and deliver the food to nonprofits and schools. This year, Tri Cycle will recover 60 tons of food in a county that sends 16,000 tons to the landfill.
The challenge in coordination has been limited time and resources. “We want to create a community house with better facilities to more effectively store, prepare, and transport the food to direct service agencies,” says founder Don Bennett. “So we can say, ‘This food is good for a meal at Seven Hills homeless shelter, and this food is better for backpack programs at schools.’ We don’t want to take over, we just want to support what they’re doing.”
Bennett also envisions the community house as a food hub that will allow him to host agro-tourists and fundraising events to support Tri Cycle’s food recovery, educational programs, and urban farm park. “We want to show other organizations they can do this with other grocery stores so we can cut that 16,000 tons in half,” Bennett says. To raise awareness and fundraise, Tri Cycle has launched a #OneMoreMile campaign on social media.
Converting food into energy. Since 2010, Recycle Smart, the solid waste authority in Contra Costa County, California, has been sending commercial food waste to East Bay Municipal Utility District’s (EBMUD) water treatment facility, where EBMUD not only treats water, but also takes food scraps from restaurants and supermarkets and converts them into renewable energy. The food, along with sewage biosolids and other organic waste, gets digested by bacteria that produce enough methane gas to power the entire facility.
“San Francisco started doing this a year and a half earlier,” says Bart Carr, senior program manager at Recycle Smart. “But they created a very expensive program. They accepted food waste mixed with plastics, paper, cans, and bottles, and had to design a complex system to separate out the food.” Recycle Smart saves time and money with source separation, providing participants with food waste bins at no cost. “Participants have embraced their role,” Carr says. “And they are focused more on recycling, too. They want to green themselves up.”
Despite the obvious benefits, this practice is not widespread. “Other facilities do use digesters, but the majority just burn the methane off,” Carr adds. “That’s what EBMUD used to do.” But other waste managers are beginning to take notice. “When we give presentations at industry conferences,” he says, “there is a ton of interest.”
Recycle Smart is paid for its contribution to EBMUD, though it’s not enough to cover the cost of food collection. The program is subsidized by revenue from commercial garbage collection, Recycle Smart’s bread and butter.
Scrumptious surplus across the pond. Instock, the Netherlands’ first food waste restaurant, creatively prepares four-course meals using surplus produce, day-old loaves, and meat and fish rejected by distributors due to size. The four co-founders met working at Albert Heijn, the Netherlands’ largest supermarket chain, and were distraught over the volume of food left unsold every day. After launching a successful pop-up restaurant in 2014, propelled by investment from Albert Heijn, Instock grew to three restaurants in Amsterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht.
Fighting food waste is integral to the brand, but the team recognizes that quality is paramount for its customers. “First, you have to have good food, good coffee, and a nice place to sit,” says co-founder Freke van Nimwegen. “If you do that well, you will be successful.” But crafting menus with extremely variable inputs can be tedious. “We always have enough food,” van Nimwegen says. “But the challenge is variety. Our chefs have to make do with whatever is in stock.”
You are what you eat… and what your food eats, too. The typical industrial livestock diet is comprised of soy and corn, which can make animals sick, as well as fishmeal, which is highly unsustainable. Over 80 percent of our global fisheries are fully exploited or recovering from depletion, and, in 2010, 88 percent of fishmeal was used to feed pigs, poultry, and farmed fish. That’s why Phillip Taylor, co-founder of Mad Agriculture in Boulder, Colorado, is cultivating black soldier flies, which mature munching on food waste, as a sustainable feed alternative.
However, flies don’t make sense for every animal. “Ruminants, your cattle and sheep, ethically should be raised on grass,” Taylor says. “So we’re focused on monogastrics: chickens, pigs, and fish, which require a specific balance of proteins and fats.” (Monogastrics have a simple stomach and only one compartment. Humans are monogastrics, too.)
But it’s a long road until Mad Agriculture becomes competitive. Fishmeal hits the market at a little over $2000 a ton, and the company currently hovers around $15,000 a ton. “Probably every black soldier fly person is selling at a loss right now,” Taylor says. “But I think we can become competitive with fishmeal as we scale.”
To get there, Taylor will keep his strategy and technology open-source. “I don’t plan on patenting anything,” he says. “Accelerating change means more people doing it. Get the cost of production down and increase consumer acceptance. If the price is right, everyone’s in business.”
In a landscape where more and more consumers care about sustainable, ethical products, black soldier flies could be a huge piece of the puzzle. “We’re thinking of ourselves as the Patagonia of animal feed,” says Taylor. “Who’s the feed company that’s driving innovation across the board? We want that to be us.”
His next step is running a trial with a pasture-raised chicken farm that sells to fine dining stalwarts, Chez Panisse and The French Laundry.
Drink your juice. Eat your pulp. In Los Angeles, Pulp Pantry co-founder Kaitlin Mogentale is on a crusade to reframe pulp as an ingredient instead of as a waste byproduct. Working with three juiceries in the city, Pulp Pantry turns fruit and veggie pulp into granola, veggie crisps, baking mixes, and even soaps, all of which line the shelves at independent Los Angeles mini-chain, Erewhon Natural Foods.
In addition to wholesale, Pulp Pantry hopes to sell co-branded products back to the juicery storefronts she sources pulp from. “There’s a lot of potential to leverage their existing locations and distribution channels to continue growing,” says Mogentale.
But it won’t be easy in a crowded marketplace. “It’s a long uphill battle,” she says. “Supermarkets are packed with vegetable products and crackers and snacks. But I think building loyalty is possible since pulp is such a novel ingredient.”
Connecting the dots. CropMobster operates an online community exchange platform for stakeholders in local food systems across Sacramento County and the San Francisco Bay Area. At first, it simply provided an online marketplace for donations of surplus produce between subscribers. However, realizing a broader array of needs, subscribers began to use CropMobster to notify their communities about events, jobs, fundraisers, calls to action, nonorganic materials, and educational resources.
“Before, we might’ve competed with companies like Cerplus or Spoiler Alert,” says co-founder Nick Papadopoulos. “But now it’s our job to spread the word about them.”
To extend its impact, CropMobster now equips local leaders with the skills necessary to run their own community exchanges through training and coaching. “In a single day, I might talk to a rice producer, a prison, a community group, a public health department, a city supervisor, and a lady with 10,000 pounds of oversized pickles,” Papadopoulos says. “These are the switchboard operators who keep the community alive. We’re just there to facilitate.”
Even while it seeks to grow, the CropMobster team is always committed to finding the next source of value, whether or not it can be monetized. “There are many relationships in a food system that don’t have a monetary component,” explains Papadopoulos. “Whether you can put it in the bank the next day or not, they’re all equally important.”