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Tech can fight food waste, but it’s ‘just one part of the solution’

May 24, 2023

In some ideal utopia, average consumers could solve the planet’s food waste problem simply by throwing less food out.

Realistically, that will never happen. As the oft-cited stat goes, around one-third of the world’s food goes to waste each year. In more recent years, nonprofit think tank ReFED has made it abundantly clear that waste happens up and down the supply chain, not just in consumer homes. Ending food waste may in fact be the ultimate gordian knot of the agrifood industry, one that calls for bolder action (and thinking) than any one behavioral change or technology can provide.

“It’s not just about tech,” head of Google’s Food for Good Emily Ma said onstage at ReFED’s event last week in St. Louis. “Tech is just one part of the solution. We’ve really got to back up and take a look at the entire supply chain.”

Ma’s panel, “What Will it Tech? How to Avoid a Solvable Problem through Digital Innovations,” gathered several food industry individuals onstage to discuss the role of technology in the fight against food waste. All participants agreed on both the magnitude of the food waste problem and Ma’s initial point that tech is one tool in a much larger kit.

Afresh’s operating system for grocery retailers in action. Image credit: Afresh

Focus on profitability, not sustainability

Referring again to that ideal utopia that doesn’t exist, companies in a perfect world would be driven by the needs of the planet to change the way they manage food waste.

Across the board, panelists agreed that they’re more likely to get results if they talk about the company’s bottom line instead.

“We sell to retailers and we talk about profitability,” said Matt Schwartz, CEO and co-founder of inventory management startup Afresh. “We actually don’t spend as much time talking about sustainability. That’s kind of a shame and I would like to spend more time talking about food waste and preventing climate climate emissions. But we actually found that talking about the impact on the bottom line is what’s most impactful.”

“What is kind of surprising is that very few companies see [food waste] as part of their sustainability efforts,” said Victoria Rehkugler, a senior customer success lead for food redistribution startup Spoiler Alert.

“It’s really focused on the bottom line and revenue . . . in spite of the fact that it’s directly reducing food waste and getting food to people who need affordable food.”

Decisions over data

“Decisions and not data is what matters” when it comes to curbing food waste in grocery stores, Schwartz said.

To illustrate, he cited the early days of Afresh, when the team used a customer’s data to build out a forecast for a grocery store executive.

“He promptly told us, ‘This is worthless; there was no value in the forecast,” Schwartz explained. “What [the store] really needed was to actually change their operational practices and change the behavior of people in stores.”

“We realized at that point that it was critically important to change operational practices and get adoption and drive better decisions as opposed to providing data or analytics or insights.”

To Good to Go sells surplus restaurant food at a discount. Image credit: To Good to Go

Keep it simple:

“I’d love to tell you that the technology was groundbreaking, but it’s pretty straightforward,” Too Good to Go‘s US managing director Chris MacAulay said of his company’s online marketplace for surplus food.

He suggested to audience members that this simplicity is very intentional in a space where innovation partly relies on changing consumer behavior — a notoriously impossible nut to crack.

“It absolutely needs to be as easy as possible to implement,” he said of any technology solution to the food waste problem.

Too Good to Go has created a mechanism for its store partners to easily add or reduce in real time the number of bags of surplus food that are available at any given moment, he said by way of example.

“The best technology fades into the background when you use it, and you forget that you were actually using a technical solution at all.”

The way to achieve that? Talk to customers and partners and understand what they want and need. See above, regarding profitability versus sustainability.

“When we think about how to deliver on the promise of what technology can do, we need to talk about the things that matter most to our partners,” MacAulay concluded.

The food industry can be a “labor-intensive, boots-on-the-ground” job for many in retail, food banks and other service settings,” added Schwartz. They work long, late hours in all types of weather. Don’t expect adoption rates to soar if “you try to just apply technology without being thoughtful about how folks are going to actually use it.”

Human behavior?

Echoing a sentiment repeated throughout the event, MacAulay issued what was arguably the most important reminder of the panel: humans are the problem when it comes to food waste.

“The source of what we’re struggling with here is that we see ourselves separate from nature,” he explained to the audience. He cited various catchphrases heard around the event — “food warriors,” “the fight against food waste” — and suggested that they are, to some degree, distractions. “What we really need to be thinking about is actually owning the fact that we are the problem.”

Whether that’s the most obvious or most utopian solution remains to be seen. In the meantime, there are plenty of tools, tech or otherwise, that need more attention from the agrifood industry when it comes to food waste.

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