There’s Extra to Meals Waste Innovation Than Tech, In keeping with ReFED’s Dana Gunders

This being The Spoon, a lot of our discussions around food waste concern the innovative technologies that could help us eventually curb the multi-billion-dollar problem and meet national and international targets to halve food waste by 2050. But as we learned today at our Food Waste Insights and Innovation Forum, done in partnership with nonprofit ReFED, tech is only one piece of the solution. When it comes to food waste, true innovation is as much about new business models, behaviors, and ways of thinking as it is about advances in, say, machine learning or computer vision.  

Dana Gunders, the Managing Director and a founder of ReFED, kicked off the event by asking two important questions related to food waste: What is innovation, and what is the problem we’re trying to solve with it?

The second question is the easier one to answer, and Gunders called on some well-known stats as a way of explaining how “radically inefficient” our food system actually is:

  • 35 percent of all food in the U.S. goes uneaten
  • $408 billion annually is spent in the U.S. on food that is never eaten
  • More than 40 million Americans are considered food insecure

Food waste also accounts for 4 percent of U.S. GHG emissions (that’s 58 million cars worth’ of greenhouse gases), 14 percent of all freshwater use, 18 percent of all cropland use, and 24 percent of landfill inputs.

Citing data from Project Drawdown, Gunders pointed out that reducing food waste ranked first of 76 solutions meant to reverse climate change — ahead of plant-based diets, utility-scale solar, wind turbines, and other well-known contenders.

New innovations will help us reach those targets and cut down overall food waste, but as we learned at today’s event, “innovation” means different things to different stakeholders when it comes to food waste. “People talk about food waste as if it were one problem. It’s not,” Gunders said at the event. “This is a complex set of inefficiencies and we need a whole suite of solutions to address that.” Gunders is, of course, referring to the wide variety of ways in which food is wasted along the supply chain. Post-harvest food loss looks different from food thrown out at the grocery store. Both of those in turn look different than food that we dump down our kitchen drains. In all of these scenarios, food waste looks different, so it follows that the solutions will vary greatly based on which part of the supply chain they are aimed at.

Tech is one obvious tool when it comes to innovation, and at this point, companies are working with everything from machine learning and image recognition to hyperspectral imaging and sensors to fight food waste. These and other technologies can track waste, help retailers forecast more precisely, and even tell us which pieces of fruit will ripen soonest in any given crop. 

But, as mentioned above, technology is only one piece of innovation. Equally important are new processes and business models as well as what Gunders calls “cultural evolution.”

New business models around food waste have been emerging steadily over the last few years, many of them around grocery and/or restaurant services selling surplus food. This is a model popularized by the likes of Imperfect Foods, Too Good to Go, Flashfood, and many others. Upcycled products are another example, as is offering financial incentives to managers, as Sodexo is doing

Cultural evolution, meanwhile, refers to what Gunders called “innovation on a much simpler level.” It’s smaller actions that work together to make the public more aware of food waste and encourage changes in behavior. Signage in dining halls about food waste or allowing customers to taste a product before they buy it are two examples.

In the wake a of the pandemic, a new administration, and an increased sense of urgency around climate change and food equity, the culture in the U.S. right now is open to change. As Gunders pointed out, now is the time for businesses with food waste solutions to consider where they fit into these changes and how they might test their customers accordingly.

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