New app builds on efforts to reduce food waste
A lot of Brussels sprouts and half-eaten hamburgers are making their way to U.S. landfills, according to a report released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Americans waste as much as 40% of the country’s food supply each year, and the average four-person family throws away $2,275 along with it.
But a number of companies are helping consumers be less wasteful. Last month the Los Angeles-based 222 Million Tons blog, so named for the amount of food that’s wasted each year, released an app that pairs a household’s size and meal preferences with shopping lists and recipes designed to use up everything that’s purchased. The free app was inspired by the years that 222 Million Tons blogger Jean-Francois Chenier lived in Japan, where celery is sold by the stalk and costs $1.
“A lot of people will buy a big thing of celery and think, ‘What will I do with that this week?’ The challenge is to think of four or five things to do over the week that feel very different so you don’t get bored with it,” said Chenier, whose app might suggest cream of celery for one night, and Asian salad with rice vinegar for another.
Peter Clarke, a professor in the department of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and his colleague, professor Susan Evans, have been working on a similar system called Quick Help for Meals, which is currently available only to food pantry patrons but could “just as easily work in the produce section of a supermarket,” Clarke said.
Quick Help is a tablet computer-based program that pairs food items and recipes with individuals’ food preferences, as well as the utensils they have in their kitchens.
“People range all over the map in terms of food use. If you can customize this information in ways that are useful to people, they will use more fresh food, they’ll prepare it in a greater variety of ways, which is really important so you don’t bore your family with carrots done the same way night after night because people will stop eating carrots,” said Clarke, whose Quick Help tool assesses individuals with a questionnaire and then prints customized recipe booklets and food tips, such as how to sharpen a knife.
“A lot of people don’t know how to sharpen a knife, so as a consequence, they don’t have anything to help them cut and peel vegetables in ways that are effective and enjoyable,” he said. “If they’re working with a dull knife, no wonder people hate vegetables.”
The Quick Help system has boosted its users’ consumption of fresh produce as much as 40%, said Clarke, who is working as a consultant to another food-waste reduction program that pairs produce delivery trucks with food pantries. Food Cowboy uses location-based mobile services to connect truck drivers hauling rejected produce with food charities, industrial compost facilities and other outlets that view such produce as a resource.
“A lot of retailers reject food because it’s mislabeled or mispacked or the eggplants are too dark or too round,” Food Cowboy co-founder Roger Gordon said. He estimated that food companies throw away nearly 2 million tons of fresh fruit and vegetables for cosmetic reasons each year.
EcoScraps, founded in 2010 and based in Provo, Utah, diverts produce waste from national grocers, such as Costco, and turns it into bagged organic compost sold at retailers, such as Home Depot. EcoScraps diverts 100 tons of food that otherwise would be wasted every day across the country.
“Most of the produce is still actually really good,” said Dan Blake, chief executive of EcoScraps. “A grocery store has a very high quality standard. They need to sell you something you can take home that won’t go bad for another week, but they’re throwing away produce that’s still ripe, still fresh.”
EcoScraps mixes the produce waste with tree waste or sawdust shavings. The EcoScraps sold in California are also generated in California, Blake said.
Food waste is the largest component of the municipal waste stream in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Annually, that piles up to 33 million tons, or 14%, of the country’s solid waste. According to the L.A.'s Bureau of Sanitation, 27% of what’s thrown in the black bin here is food.