How This Startup Uses Data Analytics to Reduce Food Waste

1.3 billions tons of food is wasted each year, but this group has a plan for businesses to become sustainable and save money.

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Oct 31 2017, 4:15pm

Image via Unsplash and Facebook.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, one fifth of all the food in the world is already being grown in cities. According to the report, redirecting just one-third of the country's food waste would be enough to feed the 42 million Americans facing food insecurity.

Spoiler Alert, a startup trying to help businesses manage unsold food more efficiently, recently published a free guide for food manufacturers, wholesale distributors, and grocery retailers interested in leveraging data to drive food waste reductions and maximize the value captured from unsold inventory. It is chock full of tools and strategies that can be implemented today.

At a recent event called the Food Tank Summit, a gathering of people who collaborate on providing sustainable solutions for our most pressing environmental and social problems, Spoiler Alert highlighted how hunger, obesity, climate change, unemployment, and other problems can be solved by more research and investment in sustainable agriculture and better practices.Co-founder Emily Malina talked to VICE Impact about how Spoiler Alert manages surplus food and why it's helping communities.

VICE Impact: The average person or company/org may think the way the food system operates is out of their control. How common is it that businesses overlook opportunities to redistribute or donate food?

Emily Malina: The amount of food that goes to waste every year is staggering — roughly 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. each year, which costs $218 billion annually to grow, process, transport, and discard.

We're focused on helping large food manufacturers, distributors, and retailers better manage unsold inventory and reduce the volume of food sent to landfill. We focus higher up the supply chain because it is these businesses that control the greatest volume of food and represent the largest opportunity for impact.

How has one of your enterprise customers changed its food management practices? Where did the food end up that would otherwise have ended up in the landfill?

We helped Sysco Corporation, North America's largest food distributor, to support its food recovery and waste diversion efforts. At one of their largest facilities in Boston, right in our backyard, we've seen a 13-times increase in healthy wholesome food going to a network of existing and new nonprofits in the local community.

Improved practices include better data-tracking and analysis of unsold inventory to identify opportunities for continuous improvement, optimizing pickup to recover additional food through donation, and sharing data with employees and customers to spread awareness.

Do you see this type of technology that coordinates donating or selling surplus food continuing to gain popularity?

Food businesses either lack real-time responsiveness to the changing quality of food or don't have the standard operating procedures in place to optimize around these different outlets, such as donation, liquidation, or organics recycling.

Technology can play a crucial role in streamlining communications and coordinate logistics to create value from otherwise unused assets (similar to how how Uber and Airbnb have transformed the transportation and hospitality industries).

Data and analytics can also be incredibly powerful for engaging employees, customers, and suppliers around food waste and the environmental and social impact made possible through food recovery and waste diversion.

In your experience do businesses just have a lack of awareness of lack of know-how? Is this starting to shift as this issue becomes more spotlighted?

There are many reasons to pursue food loss and waste reduction work, but our experience shows that there are three, very tangible benefits of this work that are measurable in real dollars: tax deductions, reductions in disposal fees, and incremental revenue achieved through liquidation. The challenge for businesses is often not having access to actionable data to understand the financial implications of inventory they are unable to sell, and potential return-on-investment of an effective food waste reduction program.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.