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 along the route from farm to table where produce leaves the human food chain to be plowed under, composted, fed to animals or buried in a landfill. Most of this food is healthy and delicious and is discarded for cosmetic reasons. By the time he left the food bank system, Clark says he was filling 60-80 truckloads a week with food he recovered from farmers and packers, bringing 125 million pounds of produce to hungry food bank clients. Today he looks on in awe at a new wave of innovators looking to tackle the problem of food waste.
In 2014, one of France's largest food retailers, Intermarche, began selling "inglorious" produce at a discount. Store traffic increased 24 percent. In mid-July, Jordan Figueiredo of EndFoodWaste.org initiated a petition calling on Wal-Mart and Whole Foods to follow Intermarche's lead.
Most of the newer efforts to end food waste are just as mission-driven as a food bank or EndFoodWaste.org but are sustained by sales of recovered produce, and the products made from it, rather than from grants and donations. They are also run by kids.
"It really is a millennial movement," Clark says. "It's refreshing to see a whole generation of people so passionate and excited about this issue. 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 Evan Lutz, the 22-year-old 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. For each box sold, a healthy meal is donated to someone in need. Lutz sees his work as inevitable, given the profoundly unsustainable situation.
"Our society can't sustain itself when 6 billion pounds of produce is wasted annually while 51 million Americans are food-insecure," he says.
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," he says. 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. Co-founder 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 co-founder 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 says. So they changed focus and started 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 (read: frozen) for sale to food businesses like caterers, juicers and restaurants. She says one unnamed "major baby food company" is interested in perhaps "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 commenced last month when 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, according to Imperfect co-founder and CEO Ben Simon. Ultimately, they want their Imperfect produce in every store, nationwide.
Simon had co-founded 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.
"Imperfect is a great combination," Clark says. "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 there's still a ways to go. "We will only feel successful if 'surplus food' is no longer a term because we've reached that level of efficiency," she says. "Given how much is being wasted out there, I don't think we will hit that point any time soon."