Can Technology Fix Food Waste?

Can Technology Fix Food Waste? 1

Janna Cordeiro, program manager for the San Francisco Produce Market, a nonprofit warehouse for local food distributors, is walking across a loading dock, examining produce that has been left out for donation to food banks. “Look at these berries!” she says, equal parts proud and outraged. “They’re perfect!”

They do, indeed, look like little berry beauty queens. Cordeiro bends over so that she’s eye level with the crate. She stares at it intently. “I can’t believe they’re getting rid of this.”

Across the state of California, a slow-growing panic is developing over California Senate Bill 1383.  Signed years ago by then-governor Jerry Brown, it directed the state’s Department of Resources Recycling & Recovery (CalRecycle) to develop a set of rules mandating that local governments  cut the amount of biodegradable trash that businesses and residents send to landfills—a 75 percent reduction over the next five years. At the time, Brown declared that it was a valuable tool for fighting methane emissions, though California also has an entire oil-and-gas sector that Brown was being criticized for not doing enough about.

Whatever the motivations, SB 1383 is coming, and it’s about more than just keeping compost out of a landfill—it’s also a statewide food program, meant to counteract the shocking amount of waste that’s common in the United States. If the food that a restaurant or a grocery store is sending to compost is actually still pretty good—if it’s a crate of slightly ragged onions, or a package of fancy cheese that is three days away from expiring—local governments have to figure out how to work with those businesses to divert at least 20% of that food and feed it to people. The state has so far provided no money to do this, and it’s not clear how diligent enforcement will be—but in the next two years, CalReycle will be free to start fining counties that fail to fall into line.

The SF Market began counting how much food it was diverting into food banks in August 2016. This year, it expects to divert over 700,000 pounds away from compost and into food programs. But it’s come at a cost. The Market now has a part-time employee just to handle the logistics of connecting merchants with food to donate to organizations that can put that food to use. If the Market were a for-profit business, instead of a nonprofit, they might not be willing to take on that expense.

The sheer volume of food that is available to donate—and the number of churches, after-school programs, senior centers, homeless shelters, and other nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area that desperately need it—points to another problem: Whatever your thoughts are concerning income inequality, it makes for a hairball of a food distribution problem.

San Francisco now has more billionaires per capita (1 billionaire per 11,612 residents) than any other city on earth. The gap between the wealthiest residents and the middle class is widening in every major metropolitan area across America, but it’s even more dramatic here—one percent of city residents make 30 percent of the wages, while 20 percent of city households make do on less than $37,000 a year.

 This inequality has created a perverse incentive for businesses to target the highest income brackets—there’s a lot of money to be made seeking the customers who can pay top dollar, and those customers are willing to pay a premium for the kind of produce that leads to the most food waste.  Rather than risk losing a lucrative client by not having fresh radicchio available for same-day delivery, grocery and meal startups keep more inventory on hand than they can sell. A decade-long rise in the number of tech shuttles, transportation startups, and companies promising home delivery have led to a shortage of truck drivers—and even more congested city streets for trucks trying to pick up or deliver produce to food banks and homeless shelters. 

Options that once would have taken some of the pressure off, like adding new refrigerator or freezer storage to warehouse nearly-expired goods, or a commercial kitchen that could turn them into more shelf-stable forms like pickles and jams, are prohibitively expensive due to the cost of real estate. The community organizations where the produce market sends food are in the same boat—trying to figure out how to make a new commercial-grade freezer seem glamorous to donors. “We should all,” says Cordeiro, “be advocating for the least sexy infrastructure.”

In some parts of the world, infrastructure is less important.  Businesses that sell perishables, like bakeries, are careful to not make more than they can sell, to the point where they will close shop early if they sell out. Economic downturns tend to make food operations more efficient—a working paper on Honolulu, Hawaii, which passed the first food waste legislation in the country in 1997, concluded that the 2008 recession may have had as much of an impact as the legislation, which wasn’t strongly enforced.

Four years ago, France’s parliament voted unanimously to ban supermarkets from destroying unsold food, and instead donate it to food programs or facilities that use it to make compost or livestock feed. A report published a year later concluded that the ban still had a ways to go—weak enforcement, as well as lack of good transportation and refrigeration, had left a lot of waste in the system. Smaller-scale experiments like “community fridges”—public fridges where anyone could leave or collect donated food—either succeeded or ran into trouble depending on the goodwill and common sense of the people tending to and using them.

According to the USDA’s numbers, one in 10 Americans qualifies as “food insecure”—meaning that there are times during the year when they don’t have enough money to buy food. A friend of mine who recently started teaching high school despaired over a group of students who perpetually seemed too sleepy and checked out to pay attention, until he realized that they were actually struggling to focus because they were hungry. In the Bay Area, where even incomes on the low end can be too high to qualify for federal food programs, but below what it takes to pay for rent, let alone food, that number is more than a quarter of all city residents.

I think about this as I stand and wait in an alley behind the financial district for a Mazda hatchback to pull up. When I was young and putting myself through college, I went through long periods of not having enough to eat, though no one noticed except maybe for the supervisor at one of my work/study jobs who would sometimes “accidentally” bring too much soup to work.

There’s something profoundly alienating about being hungry in a place full of people that aren’t. Besides always being cold, and tired, there’s also the feeling of failing at literally one of the most elemental things necessary to stay alive. We would be so fortunate if food waste in California—the most agriculturally productive state in the country—were only an ecological issue. Standing here after having passed by tent encampment after tent encampment on my way to get here, I know that’s not true.

The Mazda pulls up. Nancy, a tiny woman in big, glamorous sunglasses is behind the wheel. Nancy’s with Food Runners, a San-Francisco based volunteer-run nonprofit that is dedicated to ferrying leftovers throughout the city. Every day a mostly volunteer crew who have registered for a particular job on the Food Runners smartphone app arrive by car, by truck, or by bicycle to pick up what they can from locations that have flagged the existence of leftovers, and ferry it to the appointed destination, which is also on the app. Some of them may do it once, some of them may become volunteers for life.

Details like what food goes where is managed by a dispatcher who’s been around long enough to know to direct the leftover pizza to the after-school teen program, and the individually wrapped meals to outreach groups that hand them out to people living on the street, and the squishy food to the senior center, where vigorous chewing may not be an option. In the last 10 years in particular, it’s become commonplace for tech companies to make or cater food for their employees—those leftovers, early on, were something of a hard sell. “A lot of places have learned to love tofu.” says Nancy.

A doorway in the alley opens, revealing an apron-clad cafe worker and a hallway full of enormous grocery bags. We load the bags into the hatchback—stacked to the brim with immaculate pre-wrapped lunches: lemon quinoa medley, prawn and kale salad—thousands of dollars worth of groceries. A few minutes later, and a few blocks away, we’ll be handing them off to a SRO hotel in the Tenderloin, with nothing left ahead but the need to do it, again and again, until the food runs out or the world becomes a fairer place, whichever comes first.