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On Earth Day Souper Seconds is Battling Food Waste One Ugly Food Item at a Time

April 22, 2016

Today, in honor of Earth Day, San Francisco-based startup Souper Seconds has launched a mobile app designed to help chefs and other food manufacturers get their hands on the thousands of pounds of so-called produce “seconds” that go wasted each year.

This term is used to describe the ugly, bruised, bumpy, and gnarled items that are deemed too ugly to sell or eat. According to the National Resource Defense Council, roughly 40 percent of produce grown in the US is wasted each year, with half that amount never leaving the field. Compared to their unblemished counterparts these so-called produce “seconds” are nutritionally equivalent and perfectly fine to eat.

Souper Seconds’ marketplace was designed by farmers and built for wholesale buyers looking to source organic produce—sometimes on a time crunch. Through the app, manufacturers can purchase directly from a supplier, avoiding lengthy conversations relating to availability, transportation, and payment. After produce is purchased in the app, Souper Seconds takes care of the distribution and the food arrives at the wholesale buyer’s requested time.

“The mobile app saves wholesale buyers time and money by automating manual functions such as delivery, payments, data entry, etc., as a default—but the big idea behind it is to help alleviate the $2.5 trillion food waste epidemic,” Souper Seconds CEO and founder Megan Morris tells AgFunderNews.

Morris and her team are former farmers, giving them unique insight into how the produce business works. In addition to tackling food waste, Morris wanted to help farmers get paid for all the produce they grow—not just the pretty portions.

The idea behind Souper Seconds wasn’t born in a computer lab—it was born in the field. Morris was helping farmers harvest to get a better grasp of the process. One of the pickers instructed her to only harvest the ones that looked perfect. Soon, Morris realized that half the cucumbers in the field didn’t make the cut.

“If a kale leaf had a small hole in it, it would be left in the field, or a cucumber that was not perfectly green would be fed to livestock,” she says. “Farmers were very interested in a way to access a market that doesn’t currently exist. Technology was the only way to do this while offering products at a lower cost.”

Although there are similar platforms on the market like organic grocery delivery service Good Eggs and seconds-focused produce delivery startup Imperfect, these platforms are targeted to consumers. The produce buying market lacked a platform for wholesale accounts that offer convenient, farm-direct, and easy-to-order capabilities, says Morris.

Initially, Morris used popular multi-user communication platform Slack to connect with local restaurants. “Outerlands, Flour and Water, Tradesman, along with other big restaurants in San Francisco were all on our Slack channel waiting for our 45-minute window to order from us,” she explains. “We ended up partnering with Uber.”

After five months using Slack, a number of chefs and buyers began texting the Souper Seconds team directly. Soon, the idea for a mobile app was born.

While convenience is a major draw for the mobile app, it also provides traceability and transparency. In 2011, federal legislators passed the Food Safety Modernization Act launching the most sweeping reform of the US food safety laws in over 70 years. The regulations impose new requirements on farmers, food manufacturers, and retailers, including more thorough recordkeeping and more stringent standards for produce.

“Our app provides a unique benefit to farmers as it ensures produce traceability,” says Morris. “Data is stored on our app from the moment of harvest to the moment of sale, ensuring proper traceability to protect our farmers, chefs, and consumers.”

When it comes to Souper Seconds’ scalability, the options are abundant. Morris and her team are currently looking into a number of partnerships that would help broaden the buyers and sellers in the digital marketplace as well as the platform’s social impact.

“One potential partner is the Alameda Kitchen, a facility in Alameda CA planning to process the abundance of surplus food into affordable products while employing low-income populations,” she says. They’d also love to deliver seconds to schools and hospitals; kids. in particular, are well suited for seconds because of their preference for smaller fruit, she adds.

Celebrated in over 100 countries around the globe, Earth Day marks the beginning of the modern environmental movement that took hold during the 1970s. First celebrated roughly 50 years ago, outdoor concerts, rallies, festivals, and other events are aimed at helping the public to be s savvier about their green footprint.

Food waste isn’t just a waste of nutritional resources, it’s also costly from a financial and environmental resource perspective. The United Nations estimates the global cost of food waste is about $2.6 trillion per year. This includes roughly $700 billion in environmental costs and $900 billion in social costs.

Momentum is building in the food waste movement. Last month, a collaboration instigated by the Fink Family Foundation involving 30 high profile business, nonprofit, foundation, and government leaders, released a report claiming that food waste could be reduced by 20% in 10 years with $18 billion in investment. And last week WISErg, a Californian waste-to-fertilizer company, raised $12.3 million in venture funding.

It’s also become a major action item on policymakers’ agendas.

In September 2015, US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack set food waste reduction goals, calling for a 50 percent slash on the amount of food tossed into trash bins by 2030. Food loss and waste in the US accounts for approximately 31 percent—or 133 billion pounds—of the overall food supply available to retailers and consumers, reports the agency.

Vilsack’s call-to-action was just one of many initiatives launched at various government levels to address food waste.

The USDA has also created several food loss reduction initiatives over the past few years, including the creation of an app to help consumers safely store food and understand food date labels, new guidance to manufacturers on donating misbranded or sub-spec foods, and research on innovative technologies to make reducing food loss and waste cost effective. Today, the FoodKeeper App provides comprehensive information about food storage and freshness. It’s available for Android and iOS devices.

And in 2013, the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency launched the US Food Waste Challenge, creating a platform for leaders and organizations across the food chain to share best practices on ways to reduce, recover, and recycle food loss and waste. By the end of 2014, the program had over 4,000 active participants, well surpassing its initial goal of reaching 1,000 participants by 2020.

What do you think about produce seconds? Would you eat them? Should grocers and retailers offer them for sale at supermarkets? Get in touch: [email protected].

Image credit: Food for the Earth, 2011, a Touchstone Collaborations ‘arts as research’ residency with an Oxfordshire pub to explore food recycling with the Japanese bokashi fermentation process. Touchstone Collaborations is an art ecological and interdisciplinary arts research practice focused on food and agriculture.

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