Flash in the Pan
How young entrepreneurs are tackling the problem of food waste
Ron Clark is no stranger to food waste. After more than 20 years of working to supply fresh produce to California's food banks, he knows every point between farm and table where produce leaves the human food chain to be ploughed under, composted, fed to animals or buried in a landfill. Most of this discarded food is healthy and delicious, and is purged for cosmetic reasons. By the time he left the food bank system, Clark was filling 60 to 80 truckloads a week with food he recovered from farmers and packers, bringing 125 million pounds of produce to hungry clients. Today he looks on in awe as a new wave of innovators tries to tackle the problem of food waste. Most of this new generation are 20-somethings fresh out of college, he told me. And they're using business startups, rather than nonprofits, to get it done.
An estimated 40 percent of all food grown never gets eaten by humans, and hunger isn't the only consequence. Wasted food also represents wasted water, and contributes to global warming, thanks to the methane produced when it rots in the landfill.
But the movement to stop food waste is booming. In 2014 one of France's largest food retailers, Intermarché, began selling "inglorious," aka cosmetically challenged, produce at a discount. Store traffic increased 24 percent. In mid July a petition was initiated at Change.org calling on Walmart and Whole Foods to follow Intermarché's lead. The petition was put forth by Jordan Figueiredo of EndFoodWaste.org. Figueiredo, whose day job as a municipal solid waste manager in the Bay Area, is an anomaly in the movement, both because of his advanced age—36—and because his organization is a nonprofit.
Most of the newer efforts to end food waste are just as mission-driven as a food bank, but are sustained by sales of recovered produce and products made from it, rather than grants and donations. And they are run by kids.
"It really is a millennial movement," Clark told me. "It's refreshing to see a whole generation of people so passionate and excited about this issue." He's also impressed by their ability to bring in dollars from sales and investors. "They're money magnets," Clark says.
"They aren't interested in old organizations, which tend to be hierarchical and structured, like corporations. The energy in the new generation doesn't mix with that culture. They're going after the food waste issue in different ways and for slightly different reasons. The millennials certainly care deeply about hunger, but are primarily concerned with saving the planet."
Wasted food is responsible for about 45 trillion gallons of wasted water, according to 22-year-old Evan Lutz, CEO of Hungry Harvest in Baltimore. Hungry Harvest recovers surplus produce from farms and wholesalers, and sells it in CSA-style boxes at a steep discount to what non-
"Our society can't sustain itself when 6 billion pounds of produce is wasted annually, while 51 million Americans are food-insecure," he told me.
Despite being mission-driven, Lutz has no reservations about turning a profit on his work. "We are for-profit so we can scale in a sustainable way." A year into the project, Hungry Harvest is comfortably afloat. It recently secured some investments that "exceeded our expectations," Lutz says.
On the other coast, a Bay Area startup called Revive Foods began making jam out of recovered produce about a year ago. Cofounder Zoe Wong came from a nonprofit background, where, she says, "I felt frustrated constantly having to rely on donations in the nonprofit world, and wanted to have the ability to be financially sustainable so I could get stuff done."
The business was going well, but she and cofounder Kay Feker weren't satisfied.
"We realized that remaining a consumer product food business was going to be tough to scale from an impact perspective," Wong told me. So they "pivoted," changing the focus to selling recovered produce to food businesses. She says doing so will allow them to divert "... so much more produce from going to waste streams."
In their new model, recovered produce will be sorted and stabilized—for example, by freezing—for sale to food businesses like caterers, juicers and restaurants. One yet-unnamed "major baby food company," she told me, is "super interested in the possibility of building out a dedicated product line made from our recovered produce."
Wong and Feker share space with another Oakland-based startup called Imperfect, which aims to create the first national brand of cosmetically challenged produce. A major step in that direction was recently taken in the form of a pilot project called Real Good. On July 11, 10 outlets of the Sacramento-based supermarket chain Raley's began selling "ugly" produce at a discount. If it goes well, they hope to expand the program to all 127 Raley's stores, Imperfect cofounder and CEO Ben Simon explained. Ultimately, they want their Imperfect produce in every store, nationwide.
Simon had cofounded Hungry Harvest with Lutz before moving west to pursue his national vision. And like Hungry Harvest, Imperfect also operates a CSA-style box delivery service, delivering throughout the Bay Area.
One of the first steps Simon took in creating Imperfect was to bring in Ron Clark, the former food bank supplier. Clark is the go-to guy for sourcing wasted food in California, Simon told me. The partnership started with a three-day tour of various "sheds," as produce packing houses are called, in the heart of California's Central Valley. Clark's connections quickly proved a priceless commodity.
"Imperfect is a great combination," Clark told me. "A group of bright, ambitious, energetic millennials, and the old guy here who is well-connected to the supply side."
While these startups are riding a wave of success, Wong of Revive says, "We will only feel successful if 'surplus food' is no longer a term because we've reached that level of efficiency. Given how much is being wasted out there, I don't think we will hit that point any time soon."