Food Shift and LeanPath keep food out of the landfill
The soup was passed to waiting hands, bowl after bowl of fragrant broth brimming with carrots, potatoes, and onions. Make that super-skinny carrots, not-so-pretty potatoes, and oversized onions—veggies that would otherwise have been plowed back into the soil because they didn’t meet retail standards. Instead, food justice activists transformed the cosmetically challenged produce into a delicious lunch served to all who showed up at Frank Ogawa Plaza. The event was Feeding the 5000, a flavorful demonstration of the enormous potential of unused food.
I was eager to attend this event, in part because of lingering curiosity spawned by my first job out of college (in 1983): It was with City Harvest, a Manhattan nonprofit that delivers surplus food to hungry New Yorkers. Each day I’d field offers of unused edibles from grocers, bakeries, and restaurants (everything from day-old bread to melting ice cream), finding eager recipients at a variety of soup kitchens and food pantries. More than 30 years later, the situation is sadly familiar.
“We have an abundance of food in our country,” says Dana Frasz of Food Shift, “yet so much is going to waste while people are hungry.” Food Shift is one of several groups that hosted Feeding the 5000, an event initially launched in London in 2009 by the organization Feedback. Since then, Feeding the 5000 has served meals made from rejected food in locales like Paris, Dublin, and Amsterdam. Oakland was the first city in the United States to take part. Frasz, who founded Food Shift in 2011 to improve systems for redistributing unused food, describes the problem as a “food waste–hunger paradox.”
Frasz, 30, has the appearance and tenacity of a distance runner. She started to think hard about food waste at age 17 when she visited Kolkata (Calcutta), capital of the Indian state of West Bengal. “A woman put her baby into my arms,” says Frasz. “She looked into my eyes and said ‘food, food, please food.’” Frasz started college in Rochester, New York, where she learned that homeless men were living in nearby abandoned subway tunnels. She convinced the dining hall staff to give her the chicken, broccoli, sausage, and pizza they were going to toss out that day. Wearing headlamps, Frasz and a friend walked into the tunnels and gave the food to the homeless men.
The following year Frasz transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, where she founded the food redistribution program Empty Bellies. “I witnessed a lot of surplus food thrown away in the dining hall, and I was disturbed by this,” says Frasz, who prevailed upon local groceries and delis (and eventually her school’s dining hall) to regularly donate the food they’d otherwise throw away. Frasz adds that she had no social life during college because she was driving four or five nights a week, picking up donations and bringing them to a Bronx soup kitchen. “We still haven’t devised the most effective system for connecting surplus food to people who need it,” says Frasz, who is attempting to do just that in the Bay Area.
According to the USDA, 30–40% of food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten, and much of the 133 billion pounds of food wasted every year ends up in landfills. At the same time, one in seven Americans rely on food banks, according to a 2014 survey commissioned by Feeding America, the national network of food banks. Here in Alameda County, the statistics are even grimmer, with one in five residents turning to food banks.
Beyond the human suffering and loss of productivity caused by hunger, disposing of uneaten food is both costly and toxic. Decomposing food in landfills is a significant source of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in causing global warming. Wasting food is also closely connected to wasting water, a point that Food Shift hammered home in a recent public relations campaign on BART. Many people don’t know, for example, that it takes 12,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. Throwing out that pound of beef wastes as much water as taking a five-hour shower.
“What Food Shift is bringing to the table is energy and innovation and new ideas about ways we can connect and work together,” says Frasz. The organization operates with two paid staff and about 15 volunteers; they also collaborate with groups like Food Runners in San Francisco and St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County, who have their own volunteer network plus vehicles for transporting food.
School cafeterias are notorious for wasting food, but federal rules create roadblocks to giving unused items (even unopened cartons of milk) to kids and families. But the 1996 Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects groups that donate excess food to nonprofits from criminal and civil liability, and this is where Food Shift comes in. The group was approached by Nancy Deming, sustainability initiatives program manager at Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), who asked Frasz to help the District accomplish two goals: first, to engage parent volunteers to collect and redistribute unused cafeteria food to local families; second, to set aside extra food for community organizations to pick up. During the 2013/14 school year, Food Shift implemented these programs in 11 Oakland schools and wrote a handbook so that other schools can follow suit. Although the partnership with Food Shift has ended, the program of food donations for local nonprofits continues at Hoover Elementary and Melrose Leadership Academy. The OUSD Nutrition Services Department is working to reestablish similar donation programs in additional schools. At the same time, staff are seeking avenues (within the many constraints of federal, state, and district guidelines) for restarting donations of unused food to school families.
Over the past year, Food Shift was also hired by Airbnb, the BALLE Conference, and Bioneers to assure that leftover food from their events got to people in need. And getting hired and paid is important to Frasz. “We want to shift the paradigm of food recovery from one based on charity and volunteers to one that is seen as an essential part of a just and sustainable food system,” she says. Food Shift has also signed a contract with Andronico’s Community Markets, which is looking to minimize waste in its stores, but needs help analyzing and tracking that waste to make effective changes.
Power in a Kitchen Scale
If Dana Frasz was a student at Cal today, she wouldn’t see a lot of wasted food in the dining hall. Cal has teamed up with LeanPath, a business founded by entrepreneurs in Portland, Oregon, who created a fully automated system for tracking food waste. “We often say that the best way to reduce food waste tomorrow is to measure it today,” says Co-founder and CEO Andrew Shakman. LeanPath’s scales are kept busy in Cal’s four dining halls, which together serve 7,500 students, staff, faculty, and community members daily. LeanPath provides both the technology for measuring unused food and the staff training and coaching to create a waste-conscious mindset among employees. A grant from Stopwaste.org, the public agency dedicated to reducing waste in Alameda County, got Cal’s program started.
“There’s a story behind each item in the garbage,” says Shakman, adding that if you can unravel that story, you can figure out how to fix the problem. For example, is too much waste being trimmed from fruits or vegetables? Did an item expire or get burned, or did kitchen staff simply prepare more of a dish than diners wanted? Once the problem is understood, staff can make changes.
Psychology also comes into play. “If you put a measurement system into place, it sends a message to everyone there that food waste is on the scoreboard,” says Shakman. “People start to pay more attention.” Because entries are coded by employee, it might become apparent that one person trims just an inch from the broccoli stems, while another trims three inches. To cut down on the waste they’ll need to record, an employee might decide, for example, to trim their vegetables a little more carefully or make just half a pan of lasagna.
Sometimes food does need to be thrown out. “Some things can’t be rebaked or reheated,” says Jennifer Albers, executive chef at Cal’s Foothill Dining Service. “It’s a quality issue.” Items like sour cream are so perishable that once they’re out during a meal, it’s too risky to reuse them. But many foods can be repurposed and served later that day or the next. A food like chicken breast, says Albers, is so easy to reuse in a soup or salad that it should never be detected by LeanPath. If it shows up, change is needed.
LeanPath boasts clients across the country and provides ongoing coaching to tailor its technology to each particular organization. At Foothill, cooks have learned to make smaller batches of certain soups and to prepare smaller pans of eggs or even cook eggs to order as the morning rush dwindles. Matching production with demand and keeping hundreds of diners well fed is a challenge that varies with each meal.
The front line workers, says Shakman, are the “change agents.” In general, he finds staff supportive, though occasionally someone is resistant to the extra work. On the other hand, Albers says that about half of the employees at Foothill have wholeheartedly embraced the system and “weigh like it’s a part of their religion.”
At Foothill, I watch some old pizza getting weighed, coming in at three pounds. “That’s $7 worth of pizza,” says Albers. “LeanPath makes it real; you’re throwing out money.” According to Shakman, LeanPath typically reduces preconsumer waste by 50% and leads to 2–6% savings on food purchases. They hold a patent on the measuring system and report consistent results over the past decade. Along with UC Berkeley, their Bay Area clients include Stanford University, UCSF Medical Center, Mills College, and Saint Mary’s College.
LeanPath’s high-tech measurement system shows how adjustments to purchasing, production, menus, or staff training can prevent waste. Other technology connects unused food with recipients, a task I accomplished by phone back in the ’80s at City Harvest. CropMobster, started by Sonoma County farmer Nick Papadopoulos, uses social media and email alerts to pair donors with charitable food groups. Now operating in Sonoma, Marin, Alameda, and San Francisco counties, CropMobster categorizes its posts, allowing for donations, deals, trades, and requests. The group Feeding Forward, developed by UC Berkeley grad Komal Ahmad, has an app that matches offers of excess food with organizations in need as well as drivers to transport the food. (Read about Feeding Forward in Edible East Bay’s Spring 2014 issue) Food Shift is also working on a tech solution by developing a database to identify where excess food exists and where it is needed in the community. Transportation from donor to recipient will be added as a next step.
Tech tools are invaluable, but a change in mindset is also essential for revamping a system that allows food waste and hunger to coexist. Frasz is optimistic that a far more beneficial and cost-effective approach is gradually taking hold. “We’re elevating the value of food recovery,” she says. “We’re engaging businesses, cities, and public health officials to see that investing in food recovery not only avoids the costs of surplus food disposal, but also reaps tremendous benefits environmentally, socially, and financially.”
EPA’s Suggestions for Reducing Food Waste
- Shop your refrigerator first! Cook or eat what you already have at home before buying more.
- Plan your menu before you go shopping and buy only those things on your menu.
- Buy only what you realistically need and will use. Buying in bulk only saves money if you are able to use the food before it spoils.
- If safe and healthy, use the edible parts of food that you normally do not eat. For example, stale bread can be used to make croutons and beet tops can be sautèed for a delicious side dish.
- Freeze, preserve, or can surplus fruits and vegetables—especially abundant seasonal produce.
- At restaurants, order only what you can finish by asking about portion sizes and be aware of side dishes included with entrées. Take home the leftovers and keep them for your next meal.
- At all-you-can-eat buffets, take only what you can eat.