About a third of the food produced for human consumption never gets eaten. That’s a lot wasted—some 1.3 billion metric tons worldwide each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [PDF]. If you could magically eliminate this prodigious loss, you could readily feed the 3 billion or so more people the U.N. expects to be living on the planet when the population peaks.
It seems like a no-brainer. This is a problem that needs to be fixed. But where to start? In developing countries, inefficient harvesting, unrefrigerated storage, and frequent holdups in transportation and distribution leave food rotting in fields and warehouses and on the backs of trucks. In developed countries, efficient harvesting, processing, and distribution systems that include refrigerated warehouses and trucks mean that most food waste can’t be blamed on spoilage, although some farmers choose to leave crops in the field when they think market prices are too low. It’s when food gets into the store, restaurant, or kitchen that the real problems happen—leading to some 222 million metric tons’ worth of food being thrown out each year.
It’s this store and kitchen waste that drives Vaclav Smil crazy, because it’s so avoidable. “It’s mind-boggling,” says Smil, an environmental scientist at the University of Manitoba, in Canada. He finds institutional food in the United States especially infuriating, particularly the kind served in jails and schools, because it is overprocessed and prepared in a wasteful manner—not to mention that it’s often practically inedible. And even commercial kitchens that cook tasty food from scratch are plagued by waste.
Modern technology should be able to help—at least according to entrepreneur Andrew Shakman [PDF], one of the founders and currently CEO of LeanPath, a small company in Portland, Ore. He doesn’t pretend to be able to solve the entire problem of global food waste. But he thinks the piece that he’s focusing on—what goes on in those high-volume kitchens—is significant. Using electronic tools to track and analyze every ounce of food supplied to a commercial kitchen that doesn’t make it to the table, Shakman says, could cut way down on waste, helping the environment while saving businesses money.
During the dot-com boom, Shakman had been doing Internet marketing for food companies, developing websites and other interactive tools to sell products like Cap’n Crunch cereal and Dole pineapples. That got him thinking about the connections between technology and food. And after the dot-com bubble burst, he decided he wanted to be involved in a business that took technology more directly to the food industry—one that actually created a tangible product, not just websites.
In January 2004, he and two friends, electrical engineer Bill Leppo and software engineer Stephen Rogers, started LRS Solutions to figure out what that product could be. At that point, they knew only that they were going to build some kind of gizmo that involved embedded systems, a specialty of Leppo and Rogers. Then Carl Nelson, a salesman who had been marketing scales to count paper currency by weighing it, came to them with a proposal. One of Nelson’s customers, a food-service company, wanted a product that weighed food headed for the trash. The customer knew there was a waste problem and wanted to begin tracking it. The company had tried to adapt a deli scale to handle the task, but it was just too complicated: Employees had to weigh the pan of discarded food, weigh the empty pan, do the math, and then somehow make sense of all the information, which was stored digitally and output as a spreadsheet. Did Nelson have something to sell that would simplify the process?
Shakman and his partners focused on building that something. Within a few months, the trio had created their first prototype by connecting a microprocessor, a membrane keypad, and a liquid-crystal display to a shipping scale. Users placed food headed for the trash on the scale, and then hit corresponding buttons on the keypad to record the size of the pan, the type of food, and why it was being trashed The customer tested its prototype for six months in a cafeteria at, appropriately enough, Intel.
The company quickly learned two things. The first was that the system needed to be more robust. Shakman recalls looking around the commercial kitchen where his little plastic scale sat among all the heavy-duty stainless-steel appliances and realizing that it wasn’t going to last long. Second, the system needed to be more flexible. Menus changed seasonally, and generic food categories didn’t provide enough detail to be analyzed in any useful way. The keypad with permanently assigned buttons had to go.
Shakman and his partners pulled together a new design using a touch-screen keypad, briefly tested it with a large industrial food-management company, and put their first commercial product on sale in February 2005. Today the company, now called LeanPath, has 150 customers, each with US $3600 to $70 000 worth of LeanPath systems.
The way the systems work is simple enough. Say a cafeteria has a pan of cooked potatoes that have been sitting in the refrigerator just too long to use. Before disposing of them, a food-service worker puts the entire pan on the LeanPath scale. Questions start popping up on the touch-screen display, and the worker punches in responses, identifying things like the size of the pan (so the system can automatically subtract its weight), the type of food (potatoes in this case), why it’s being thrown out (whether burned, expired, or spoiled, for example), and how it’s being disposed of (landfill, compost, or donation, say). LeanPath tailors the options for each customer.
Right now, these scales collect data on a USB drive for later transfer to a PC running LeanPath’s software. The next version, Shakman says, will upload the data wirelessly to the cloud. Either way, customers can view detailed reports about what they’re wasting and why.
Cal Dining, the food service at the University of California, Berkeley, for example, which installed four LeanPath systems in August 2011, took a particular breakfast sausage off the menu after it jumped toward the top of weekly waste reports. It turned out that students hated it, but nobody had realized that until there was a clear record of all the sausages being thrown out.
Waste reduction also comes from LeanPath’s ability to raise employee awareness: Whenever a worker finishes entering data about something headed for disposal, the touch screen displays an estimate of the food’s cost in large type. That pan of potatoes? That was six bucks that just went into the trash.
Shakman says some of his customers have reduced waste as much as 80 percent since installing LeanPath equipment, for a 6 percent reduction in food costs; more typical customers cut waste about in half. (One of those big savers is the kitchen that serves the MGM Grand Buffet in Las Vegas.) Of course, his system doesn’t address the food waste that comes off people’s plates, but that’s the next frontier. Some buffet operators, who are particularly sensitive to this problem, are addressing it by charging a fee for uneaten food.
The four dining halls using the LeanPath system at UC Berkeley saw a substantial reduction in the amount of food tossed out: 19 percent as measured by weight and 20 percent by dollars spent. Dining-operations director Chuck Davies is quite happy with the new technology for tracking waste. It took a while to get everything set up—workers had to weigh the pans and trays being used and feed those measurements into the system, and Davies and his employees had to figure out how to best categorize different foods. But the payoff in information was well worth the effort.
Davies learned, for example, that the most waste comes from trimming vegetables, which is unavoidable, he says. But then there was that unpopular sausage that had gone undetected for so long. He’s also learned that the Cal Dining staff needs to keep a closer eye on fish—cooking too much of it can be an expensive mistake. And seeing a sudden uptick in bread going past its expiration date meant that the staff had to be more careful about ordering from the bakery.
Change in the food-service industry comes slowly, Shakman says. “In the Internet world when you announce something new, people talk about it and adopt it. In food service, new is not necessarily good. This is an industry where people can get fired three times a day—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—if you run out of food or make someone sick. The feedback is immediate. So the technology-adoption curve is slow.”
Shakman is nevertheless encouraged, both for his company and for the world as a whole. “Sure, we’ve had some moments when we had to say, ‘Gosh, is this going to be a business? Is this sustainable?’” he says. “And every time we discussed it, we concluded that we are making a real difference on a real problem, and we are the only ones doing it.”
This article originally appeared in print as “Waste Not, Want Not.”