Start-ups, organizations take on America’s food waste challenge

January 26, 2014 at 9:01 PM EDT
According to the USDA, 30 to 40 percent of the food produced in America goes uneaten. Mona Iskander reports from West Virginia on how new businesses have emerged to help kitchens reduce food waste while turning a profit.

BARBARA HARTMAN: These are food scraps. Rather than putting them in the trash, I’d rather put them in my compost area.

MONA ISKANDER: Barbara Hartman is a registered dietician who lives in rural West Virginia.  She grew up appreciating the value of food.

BARBARA HARTMAN: I don’t like to waste food.  It’s been ingrained in me since I was a little child. My grandfather lived through the Depression. And he would always bug us about cleaning our plates.  And then my parents would echo that.

MONA ISKANDER:  Hartman is part of a growing number of people trying different methods to reduce food waste at home.

BARBARA HARTMAN: A lot of people will throw the greens on the beets away, but they are actually delicious, so I save them, put them in the pan. There’s less waste that way. I like to freeze things instead of throwing them out. This is a piece of turkey pot pie from the holiday meal that I just stuck into the freezer, otherwise it would have gone into the compost.

MONA ISKANDER: But Hartman’s not only trying to reduce waste at home… she’s taken her philosophy to work. She is the chief of nutrition and food service at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia, where she’s in charge of serving 15 hundred meals a day.

MONA ISKANDER: What was this food situation like here when you first came to work here?

BARBARA HARTMAN: When I first became the chief of the service, we were throwing all of the food waste into the trash.  Which was then going to the landfill.

MONA ISKANDER: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 36 million tons of food waste goes to landfills every year  And the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation’s most powerful environmental groups, says that’s harmful to the environment.

MONA ISKANDER: According to the NRDC, food now represents the biggest component of solid municipal waste that makes its way to landfills. Food waste converts to methane, a greenhouse gas that’s at least 25 times more powerful in global warming than carbon dioxide.

MONA ISKANDER: It’s environmental concerns like this that encouraged Barbara Hartman and her team to take action. Six years ago they started to implement what they call, “a green kitchen” initiative.

BARBARA HARTMAN: Our goal these days is to be as environmentally responsible as we can be. And to also have great food.

MONA ISKANDER:  So Hartman turned to technology, investing $22,000 of the VA medical center’s money in a food waste tracking system called LeanPath. It paid for itself in just 6 months.

MONA ISKANDER: Here’s how it works: every day, Hartman’s staff weighs and records the amount of food that’s wasted when preparing meals… they also measure the waste from untouched leftover meals

RUSSELL: So I’m actually weighing our waste trim that’s coming from the vegetable prep department.

MONA ISKANDER: LeanPath generates data on what specific food is being wasted.

BARBARA HARTMAN: This shows the top 10 food items that we’ve wasted by category and I can see that cooked vegetables were up quite a bit in our waste. So… It does help me to determine that OK next week we do need to order less of certain items.

ANDREW SHAKMAN: Food is money.  So it’s really critical that we record data about it and we know what we’re wasting.

MONA ISKANDER: Andrew Shakman is the president and co-founder of LeanPath. A graduate of Stanford University, he has a background in technology.

ANDREW SHAKMAN: I’m passionate about the food waste problem because I came to it initially as a very rational business thinker, approaching this as– an economic problem. There’s a financial opportunity where it made no sense to be inefficient.

MONA ISKANDER: Shakman is one of a growing number of social entrepreneurs who are trying to make money and do the right thing to reduce food waste.

ANDREW SHAKMAN: And I found that I got out of bed every day with a purpose and a mission that was driven by impacting those things.  Yes, we want to build a great business, but what’s exciting to us is about making a change.

MONA ISKANDER: So far he’s sold his system to more than 150 large institutions, like colleges, hospitals and hotels around the country. In an effort to attract smaller businesses, like restaurants, LeanPath now charges about $150 to $1,000 a month, depending on the level of service provided.

ANDREW SHAKMAN: So what LeanPath does is we help people understand what they’re putting in the garbage, so that they can then make changes to production, to purchasing and to menus so that in the future, they don’t have that waste again.

MONA ISKANDER: Shakman’s company is making a profit. And its clients are saving money.

BARBARA HARTMAN: I conservatively estimate that we save $40,000 to $50,000 a year in food waste.

MONA ISKANDER: In the last few years, other companies have sprung up to tackle the food waste problem while also trying to make a profit. Start-ups like Food Cowboy and Crop Mobster connect food suppliers who have excess fresh produce to organizations that feed people in need… cutting waste and charging a small commission on the transaction. Another company, Daily Table, wants to make money on the fact that most grocery stores can only sell perfect looking fruits and vegetables.  The company wants to sell bruised and oversized produce at discounted prices. Back in West Virginia, just 15 miles from the VA medical center, a local farmer, Cam Tabb, has also found a way to make money and reduce the amount of food going into landfills. On his 1800-acre farm, he grows a variety of crops and raises livestock. But Tabb has also built a thriving composting business. The VA medical center pays Tabb to pick up their leftover food scraps every two weeks. He trucks this to his compost heap where it supplements other organic waste that will decompose over time.

CAM TABB: We’re converting a waste into a usable product that grows another crop. In other words, what you saw put in there was some sort of crop and now, once it’s processed into finished compost then we’ll grow other crops.

MONA ISKANDER: Tabb uses the nutrient rich compost in place of commercial fertilizer, saving him $50,000 a year.

CAM TABB: It’s part of the diversification that we’ve done which makes us more profitable.

MONA ISKANDER: Thanks to this unique partnership and other efforts the VA medical center has made to reduce food waste, Hartman and her team received an award from the White House in 2010.

BARBARA HARTMAN: Before we started our Waste Watchers program, our green kitchen, all of our food waste was going into the landfill.  And now we’ve reduced it to where there’s about 5 percent to 10 percent.

MONA ISKANDER: But advocates say there is much work that needs to be done around the country to address what is an enormous problem.

PETER LEHNER: In the United States, there’s food wasted at every step of the chain.

MONA ISKANDER: Peter Lehner is the executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says the government is starting to pay attention.

PETER LEHNER: EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture have all started programs to try to address food waste, to try to begin to educate people about that.

MONA ISKANDER: One area his organization would like the government to focus on is regulating food date labeling. Those dates stamped on products you buy often provide information for when food is at its best quality. Not the date that a product has gone bad and is supposed to be tossed out.

PETER LEHNER: When people are encouraged to use their nose rather than just look at the date, actually taste– take a taste and see whether it is still good, that can make a big difference.

MONA ISKANDER: And Lehner says curtailing food waste may be easier than it seems. He says that’s because almost half of the food in this country goes through six major retailers, Walmart, Safeway, Kroger, Costco, Target and Supervalu.

PETER LEHNER: And so it’s a half a dozen companies who have a tremendous opportunity if they change some of their policies, including pressure they put about expiration dates, how they display food, what they do with food they’re throwing out, putting it into composting or feeding it to animals instead of putting it in a landfill. It’s a relatively small number of actors who could make a big, big difference. And so NRDC and others are working with them because they can also save money at it.

MONA ISKANDER:  As for Barbara Hartman, she has plans to expand her initiatives and hopes to tell others in the community about how they can put these types of programs into place.

BARBARA HARTMAN: When it’s all said and done, when I’m in my senior golden years, I’ll be able to feel like I did the best I could.  And that my contributions add up.