Support the news

How Boston Entrepreneurs Use Tech To Tackle Food Waste06:41
Download

Play
Scrambled eggs and ingredient for a breakfast burritos get thrown out as the period for serving breakfast comes to an end at Boloco at Atlantic Wharf. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Scrambled eggs and ingredient for a breakfast burritos get thrown out as the period for serving breakfast comes to an end at Boloco at Atlantic Wharf. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

About 40% of the food produced in the U.S. gets thrown out — never eaten. Boston entrepreneurs have developed technologies to reduce that waste.

Some of that tech is being used at local restaurants, like Boloco.

On a recent weekday morning, the kitchen of one of the burrito chain's shops near South Station is busy. Workers grill chicken, mix salads and chop vegetables. Erick Gutierrez mashes up some guacamole in a huge tub.

"It is actually 144 avocados [in here]," Gutierrez says, adding that's how many avocados the store uses every day.

Boloco manager Erick Guitierrez slaps some guacamole onto a breakfast burrito he is making for a customer using the “Food For All” app. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Boloco manager Erick Guitierrez slaps some guacamole onto a breakfast burrito he is making for a customer using the “Food For All” app. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Gutierrez and his coworkers are preparing for the midday rush. But in another part of the kitchen, there's food out that didn't sell during breakfast.

"There's still some eggs there, there's a little bit of potato, there's some bacon," Boloco COO Matt Taylor points out.

To prevent some of the food from ending up in the trash, Boloco has turned to an app called Food For All.

"It's a good way for us at the time of day when we would be creating food waste — because of the change of meal period or the end of the day — to offer that food up to folks who might be interested in purchasing it at a lower price," Taylor says.

Customers buy leftovers for at least a 50% discount with the app.

A little after 10 a.m., some customers begin to arrive, smartphones in hand, ready-to-pick-up meals they've purchased through Food For All.

"I didn't eat breakfast this morning because I was running late, and I figured I'd check it out," says Nick Dessalines, who works as an analyst nearby. "They had something here, and so I figured I'd grab something quickly to get me going."

Dessalines says the app is convenient, especially when he misses a meal at home.

Other customers say they like the broader mission of the app.

"Well it's cheaper and it reduces food waste," says Vibha Honasoge, a Northeastern student, who stops in to pick up a breakfast burrito. "I thought it was a great idea. Very innovative."

Swathi Joshi purchases a breakfast burrito with the “Food For All” app at Boloco at Atlantic Wharf. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Swathi Joshi purchases a breakfast burrito with the “Food For All” app at Boloco at Atlantic Wharf. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Boloco manager Erick Guitierrez taps Tom Leonard’s phone as he purchases a breakfast burrito with the “Food For All” app. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Boloco manager Erick Guitierrez taps Tom Leonard’s phone as he purchases a breakfast burrito with the “Food For All” app. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Boloco used to waste 50 pounds of food a day. Taylor, the COO, says that's now been cut in half because of Food For All.

"Wasting food just feels tough," Taylor says. "We know there are people out there that need it. We've got it. And it's sad to have it end up in the trash."

The restaurant industry generates around 11 million tons of food waste every year. That's almost a fifth of all food waste, according to ReFED, a coalition of businesses, nonprofits and government leaders working to reduce food waste.

Food For All launched in Boston last year and now has over 200 restaurants on the app, including in New York. The company also plans to expand beyond restaurants to include produce, packaged foods or meal kits. Food For All has started to work with some farmer's markets, according to company co-founder Sabine Valenga.

"We are also looking for food trucks," Valenga says. "There's definitely a lot of other markets that we can explore."

Other entrepreneurs see opportunities, too. Ricky Ashenfelter is a self-described "tree hugger" and the CEO of Spoiler Alert, a software company focused on tackling food waste in the supply chain. The company helps large food manufacturers and distributors better manage their inventories.

"These are billion-dollar companies that are faced with millions of dollars of excess product on any given year," Ashenfelter says.

(Courtesy Natural Resources Defense Council 2017 report)
(Courtesy Natural Resources Defense Council 2017 report)

Companies like Sysco, the country's largest food distributor, and Hello Fresh, the top meal-kit service, use Spoiler Alert. The software connects them to a network of food banks, food rescue organizations and discount retailers so their unsold products don't end up in the trash.

Ashenfelter says 3 million meals were donated last year through his platform, and he expects that amount to double this year.

"What that means is more product is moving into communities where food access or hunger are our problems," Ashenfelter says.

There's also a financial cost to food waste. Businesses, farms and consumers waste $218 billion worth of food every year, according to a ReFED report.

"Wasting food just feels tough. We know there are people out there that need it. We've got it. And it's sad to have it end up in the trash."

Matt Taylor, COO of Boloco

But apps and software aren't enough to tackle this massive problem, according to Eric Decker, the head of the department of food science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

"I mean software and apps are only going to take you so far," Decker says.

Decker thinks better solutions may be found through exploring biology and chemistry. His labs are developing ways to stop bacteria and mold so foods — like, say, avocados — don't go bad so quickly.

"If we can find a way to put that avocado in a bag to slow down its ripening process so it doesn't spoil or if we can find a technology so that when the avocado gets to the perfect state of ripeness we can we can hold it in that perfect state of ripeness, then that's going to do a lot to decrease food waste," Decker says.

The potential is huge because a big share of food waste happens in our homes.

Ismail Samad, the director of manufacturing operations at Commonwealth Kitchen, says even if tech helps preserve or save food from waste, consumers still have to do their part.

"I don't want to sound like I'm a Luddite," Samad says with a laugh. "But if we don't change our behaviors as a consumer to make sure that we're not wasting at the home level, then it just becomes we're going to turn that food waste just into waste again."

Samad says consumers still need to buy less, plan out meals better and not create their own leftovers. And that will require a much larger cultural shift in our behavior.

This segment aired on June 5, 2019.

Related:

Zeninjor Enwemeka Twitter Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.

More…

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news