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INNOVATION ECONOMY

Technology and planning are helping to take a bite out of food waste

The Cambridge nonprofit Food for Free collects surplus food and repackages it as frozen meals for families and shelters/
The Cambridge nonprofit Food for Free collects surplus food and repackages it as frozen meals for families and shelters/Food for Free

We’re nearing the end of the season for cooking, baking, and hosting. And for dumping scraps into the trash, disposal unit, or composting bin.

The stats on food waste are staggering: Up to 40 percent of all food produced in the United States is never consumed, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The bulk of that gets tossed out — by restaurants, stores, and homes, according to ReFED, a California nonprofit that focuses on reducing food waste. And when it winds up in a landfill, it rots and produces methane — a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than carbon dioxide.

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But one bit of good news is that there has been an increase in activity locally, on the part of both startups and nonprofits, to try to reduce food waste and ensure that more food gets to people who can’t afford it, while it’s still edible.

Cambridge Crops, a startup in Somerville, is developing a new kind of protective layer for foods. It’s made from an edible protein extracted from natural silk. The company has been testing its coating on foods such as ground beef, cherries, and spinach leaves, demonstrating that it can inhibit the growth of bacteria and extend the amount of time the food can be sold by as much as 50 percent. The company raised $4 million from investors in July.

Boston-based Phood Solutions is working on a system that couples cameras, scales, and software in a kitchen — say, at a big hotel or restaurant — to automatically identify what kinds of food are going to waste, and how much of it.

“We aggregate this data,” explains CEO Luc Dang, to help the business cut costs because of “overproduction, expiration, spoilage, and more.”

As an example, he says, the system might recommend reducing the production of chicken breasts for salads by 5 percent on certain days, because that’s how much of it is going to waste. Phood participated in an entrepreneurship program for food-oriented startups this summer organized by Techstars and sponsored by Cargill, the food and agriculture conglomerate.

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The Boston startup Spoiler Alert runs an online trading platform that enables food producers and distributors to get rid of excess inventory by selling it or donating it. Spoiler Alert charges subscription fees to sellers, as well as fees based on transaction volume, says cofounder Emily Malina. The company has 12 employees and is planning to add more in early 2020.

Some of the food sold through Spoiler Alert winds up at discount grocery outlets like Daily Table, which sells food that is nearing its expiration date. (Daily Table founder Doug Rauch, a veteran of the Trader Joe’s chain, says he’s “actively seeking” to open a third location in the Boston area in 2020, to complement stores in Roxbury and Dorchester.)

The nonprofit Food for Free distributed about 100,000 pounds of surplus food in the week leading up to Thanksgiving, says executive director Sasha Purpura. It asks donors such as Harvard University to freeze excess prepared food that would otherwise go uneaten, and then divides it into meals for people in need — including financially strapped students at state and community colleges, Purpura says.

Food for Free will soon start collecting surplus food from Boston’s two convention centers, and in May the Cambridge biotech Biogen set up a kitchen in Kendall Square for the nonprofit’s exclusive use. “Prior to that, we’d been borrowing church kitchens,” Purpura says. Food for Free has 21 employees and relies on about 300 volunteers over the course of the year.

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“There’s a joke within nonprofits that everybody comes out at Thanksgiving and Christmas and wants to do a good thing, when we’re all being grateful and giving back,” Purpura says. “But people and funding are needed year-round.”

Hunger, says Ashley Stanley, “is not a problem of supply, but of distribution.” Her Boston nonprofit, Lovin’ Spoonfuls, tries to address that. It collects food that would otherwise go unsold at grocery stores like Whole Foods and Big Y and distributes it to soup kitchens, safe houses, and after-school programs around the state. The organization has 20 employees, Stanley says, and is adding more to help run office operations.

Two big milestones from 2019: adding service in Hampden County, around Springfield, and installing real-time tracking technology in its fleet of trucks, so donors and recipients know when a truck will show up, so it can design more efficient routes.

Boston Area Gleaners is a nonprofit that does something similar: It sends volunteers to more than 70 farms to harvest produce that otherwise would go to waste and distributes it to hunger-relief organizations. CERO Co-op collects food waste from businesses — 80 tons a week — and turns it into compost for farmers.

Jen Faigel, executive director of the nonprofit CommonWealth Kitchen, says she’s “definitely seeing a big uptick in interest around food waste” in Massachusetts. Her organization runs a kitchen in Dorchester that supports food entrepreneurs.

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Several factors are driving the increase in activity, Faigel says. One is government policies intended to keep food waste out of landfills, including a 2014 Massachusetts law. There is technology to turn food waste into energy. Reducing waste is being built into more companies’ sustainability goals, she says. And “consumers are getting more aware and motivated to purchase food products that address food waste,” like Somerville-based Brewer’s Crackers, which are made using leftover grains from local breweries. Plus, Faigel adds, “there are a ton of companies getting into using ‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables to make smoothies.”

Stanley says that when she started Lovin’ Spoonfuls, in 2010, “people looked at me like I had two heads when I used the term ‘food rescue.’ It just wasn’t part of the vernacular. People weren’t as educated about where their food was coming from, and how much was wasted.”

That has been changing over the past decade — a positive change, in my eyes. While the for-profit ventures will need to win in the marketplace based on the value they create, the nonprofits can always use your help, as a volunteer or a donor.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.