PORTLAND, Maine — A third of all food in the United States gets wasted, even as millions of children go hungry. At the same time, there is an obesity epidemic. What’s going on?
“We’ve been wasting food for years; we just haven’t been paying attention,” said Bill Seretta of The Sustainability Lab, a Yarmouth-based nonprofit which helps institutions save precious resources like food and water.
Ways to counter edible waste from the entire food spectrum anchored a discussion Tuesday at Maine Startup and Create Week. Seretta joined a panel of agriculture, food safety and tech experts at Maine College of Art to explore innovations yielding improved access to fresh, healthy food.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “up to one third of all food is spoiled before it is consumed.” Recovering half of what is wasted could feed the world. Therein lies business opportunity.
Hannah Semler, gleaning coordinator for Healthy Acadia, led the talk that delved into food insecurity and the need in Maine for better aggregation and distribution channels for food, fish and fowl.
The idea, said Semler, “is to humanize the food system. Gleaning has been a vehicle to bring people together around the idea of food and what it should be.” Gleaning, collecting food that would otherwise go to waste, is not a new idea. It was mentioned in the Old Testament, said Semler.
Healthy Acadia conducts regular farm maintenance, cleaning out rows and thinning spinach, for example, which is delivered to food pantries Down East and in counties like Aroostook and Hancock.
“One farmer tells me, through the gleaning initiative, they are able to give 10 times more food than they would be able to give. The capacity of donating requires time and coordination,” said Semler.
And food that’s safe to eat.
Given its perishable nature, food safety is crucial, especially when money is on the line. Panelist Michele Pfannenstiel, president of Dirigo Food Safety, consults with businesses on best practices and offers training and tips on how to a handle a crisis. At home she follows similar steps to feed her family of five.
“Make sure the foods you buy are stored correctly. Don’t overstuff the fridge because the air needs to circulate,” said Pfannenstiel.
Other tips for controlling food waste include going to the grocery store with a shopping list, checking the dates and consuming closely dated items first and properly storing the rest.
Another key tool is the USDA’s new food storage app, The FoodKeeper, which lets you know how long your food is good for and provides cooking and storage tips.
All panelists spoke out passionately about “ugly,” “inglorious” fruit. Consumers can increase demand by asking their grocers to sell it instead of tossing it.
“Apples with bruises have more nutrients,” Semler told the amazed crowd.
Institutions and restaurants need to do their part
“College kids are wasting food by the truckload. One solution is, don’t give students a tray in the cafeteria. It cuts down food waste because they don’t take as much,” said Seretta, adding that both Bowdoin and Unity colleges don’t offer trays.
Tracking companies like Lean Path give restaurateurs a real-time food waste prevention system so ingredients don’t spoil from shift to shift. Teaching chefs better knife skills (so they learn to slice all parts of a strawberry, for example) and organizing walk-in refrigerator closets so more food can be saved helps. Healthy Acadia is running a pilot project with restaurants, hospitals and schools in Greater Ellsworth to diminish food waste.
The topic has caught on with startups. The MIT-born Spoiler Alert recovers food before spoilage occurs through an online collaboration platform. FoodSpoilerAlert.com coordinates real-time donations from farms and food producers, notifying nonprofits of the available bounty.
Chief product officer Emily Malina told the group how Spoiler Alert was recently used.
“We were contacted by a produce distributor who said they had 800 pounds of browning bananas. It was a shame to waste. We were able to connect them with a baker, who turned the bananas into banana bread,” said Malina.
Currently Spoiler Alert is being piloted in Maine, where a dozen farms and nonprofits are using the platform. Increased participation is pending.
A $500,000 grant submitted by the Greater Portland Council of Governments could create a virtual wholesale marketplace for agricultural and fishery surplus.
“It will accelerate our growth of a more robust network of food businesses, farms and nonprofits in the Greater Portland area,” said Malina.
Despite the technology potential, improvements in Maine’s rural farm areas will make the biggest difference, but they won’t happen overnight.
“If the solution doesn’t come from a rural setting, it’s not going to be a solution,” said Semler. “As long as we match the Spoiler Alert concept with a distribution network that can support the movement of food across different areas of Maine, the only problem will be the capacity of farms to adapt to that growth.”