If you’ve clicked on an article about food waste or scrolled through the app store for ideas on how to save your food discards, then you’ve encountered these numbers:
Globally, from farm to landfill about one third of all food, or about 1.3 billion tons, is wasted, and the U.S. wastes up to 40%.
The stats are jarring, but they fail to tell us much about how and why such a huge amount of waste occurs throughout our food system.
Addressing the food waste epidemic requires us to widen our perspective and develop practical, comprehensive solutions that can be implemented by everyday people. A number of tech companies and nonprofits have developed apps aimed at doing just that.
Will these apps become true connectors that empower individuals and communities? And what impact, if any, can they have on our global food and environmental landscapes?
We’ll explore these questions by looking at 3 popular food waste apps, but, first, let’s dive into 3 reasons why rescuing food is crucial to fighting climate change and environmental injustices.
1. Our global food waste crisis is defined by economic inequity
In countries with lower per capita income, food waste is generated more on the production side, before ever reaching store shelves.
The opposite is true for wealthier countries. In the US and European countries, more food is wasted in homes and the retail sector.
In the US, the biggest source of food waste (about 37%) comes from residents throwing away food. Restaurants clock in just behind that amount at 27%. It’s not surprising, then, that Americans and Europeans waste up to about 250 pounds per capita. For comparison, in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, food waste amounts to only about 24 pounds per person annually.
A significant amount of food waste can be attributed to dietary choices, lack of consumer education about the food system and what constitutes “fresh food,” and businesses’ lack of incentives and know-how to donate leftovers.
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that food producers profit off of high volumes of cheap, disposable food, and throughout the US the cheap availability of landfill space disincentivizes food recycling.
2. Food waste plays a major role in climate change
Food waste exacerbates the environmental impacts of our food system, and scientists maintain that as global warming intensifies, growing food will become harder, driving up food prices and food insecurity.
Of all U.S. croplands, agricultural water, and farming fertilizers consumed, about one fifth is used to grow food that is wasted. While 28% of global agricultural land is utilized to produce food that never reaches a plate.
This wasted food accounts for up to 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Combined with changes to our diet, reducing food waste could cut as much as 50% of greenhouse gas pollution from the food system.
3. Food waste’s biggest impact is on communities of color
In America, 54 million people, 18 million of whom were children, experienced food insecurity in 2020. By the numbers, it’s easy to see that food waste, and food accessibility, are both socioeconomic and environmental issues.
Black households faced three times the food insecurity rate of white, non-hispanic households and Latino households are also twice as likely to be food insecure as white, non-Hispanic households. These same communities face compounded inequalities related to worse air pollution and a disproportionate exposure to climate change impacts.
These inequities persist globally. Over 2.3 billion people were food insecure in 2020, with over 800 million facing hunger. Half of those facing hunger live in Asia and a third live in Africa.
Recovering food waste offers a pathway to eliminating at least some food insecurity. In the US, reducing food waste by just 15% could feed 25 million food-insecure Americans.
Food waste apps: Three models
The food waste app ecosystem includes a wide spectrum of solutions, including nonprofits like Food Rescue US, which connects unused food to food pantries, and for-profit apps like Too Good To Go and Misfits Marketplace, which aim to use market solutions to get unused food to willing consumers.
1. Food Rescue US—Using data to connect food donation agencies to surplus food
Founded in 2011, Food Rescue US is a nonprofit app aimed at connecting surplus food from businesses to the right donation agency, using volunteers for pickup and delivery. Participating restaurants and grocery stores simply post their surpluses on the app, while food donation agencies indicate what they need. With enough participation and data collection, the app optimizes the distribution of food donations, better serving communities in need.
It currently operates in 20 states, and has provided over 83 million meals and saved 106 million pounds of food.
According to Melissa Spiesman, Food Rescue US’s National Site Director, the app empowers local volunteers to become more involved in food rescue: “Our rescuers are getting exposure to [food donation] agencies in communities of need that they didn’t know existed, [and we’re able to connect] volunteers to do more for the agencies than just delivering food. They often get friends and families involved in helping out too.”
The nonprofit focuses on engaging community members from food-insecure communities to take a leadership role in food recovery.
2. Too Good To Go—Getting food to as many people as possible
Some apps leverage technology and discounted food prices to get surplus food from retailers to as many people as possible, without focusing on need or food insecurity.
Founded in Copenhagen, DK, Too Good To Go is one such for-profit company. Unlike food donation-focused apps, it focuses primarily on reducing the environmental and social impacts of food waste.
The app works by partnering with your local pizza shop, for example, to offer up pizza slices leftover at the end of the day, which would otherwise be trashed, and sells them for about a third the price in what they call a “surprise bag.”
According to Claire Oliverson, Too Good To Go’s marketing director: “Food waste solutions should be super accessible to anyone. Users simply open up the app, see a little map feature, browse around for what they’re interested in, and reserve the food they want.”
“It’s about democratically getting the word out wherever you can and letting people of all walks of life participate in reducing food waste.”
Too Good To Go started in the US in 2020 and has 1.5 million users in 12 cities with 1 million meals saved.
The UK-based app Olio provides a similar service, allowing members and businesses to notify people nearby about leftover food items and arrange pickup. Since its launch in 2015, Olio has amassed nearly 5 million users and has saved over 35 million meals.
3. Misfits Market—Rescuing and delivering “unsellable” produce
Like Imperfect Foods, another produce delivery app, the Philadelphia-based Misfits Market centers on saving food that would otherwise be thrown out by farms or distributors due to visual imperfections (“ugly produce”) and excess supply. They contract directly with growers and focus on delivering affordable organic produce as well as meats, seafood, and pantry items to consumers. Users subscribe to receive weekly boxes of these items at discounted prices.
Operating in 37 states, Misfits Markets has prevented 170 million pounds of food waste since 2015.
Conclusion: The numbers aren’t there…yet
Considering the scale of waste in the US alone, the impact of food waste apps remains relatively small, with most not directly focused on helping food insecure communities.
Still, food waste apps’ major contribution might simply be popularizing the urgency of the problem. Apps like Food Rescue US are empowering a small but significant number of leaders to mobilize their communities around food waste.
As Claire Oliverson from Too Good To Go put it, food waste apps have the power to “make the invisible food waste issue visible” by educating ordinary people “to be conscious of food waste and have a desire to do something about it.”