The Science of Sustainability

Using Social Media to Rescue Food

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On a gray, foggy summer morning in San Francisco, Shakirah Simley is busily typing away at a computer in a loft space overlooking premium organic produce, prepared foods and artisanal groceries for sale at  Bi-Rite Market.

The 28-year-old former Fulbright scholar, cooking instructor and Community Coordinator for Bi-Rite is on a mission this morning: to give away 115 pounds of organic gold apricots and black seedless grapes to a local hunger-relief charity. Fifteen minutes later, a tweet alerts Simley that a volunteer from Food Runners is on his way to claim the fresh fruits which will be distributed within 24 hours to low-income residents in San Francisco.

Shakirah Simley manages the community outreach and giving initiatives for Bi-Rite market in San Francisco.  Photo by Sheraz Sadiq, KQED Science

Shakirah Simley manages the community outreach and giving initiatives for Bi-Rite market in San Francisco. Photo by Sheraz Sadiq, KQED Science

It's a stunningly effective demonstration of how the battle against food waste has shifted online, where Facebook, Twitter and startups are helping to nimbly crowdsource surplus food that would otherwise end up composted or worse – end up rotting in a landfill.

Thanks to efficient purchasing and its popular deli and creamery, not much gets wasted at Bi-Rite. Still,  the summer months can yield bumper crops of fruits and vegetables. So in June of 2013, Simley decided to give away some excess fruit through CropMobster, a web site co-founded and launched by Nick Papadopoulos, a Bi-Rite supplier and the General Manager of Bloomfield Farms.

"We need to change the mindset that it’s acceptable for 40 percent of any industry to go to waste. Imagine if you saw 40 percent of smartphones going to the dump just as they're coming off the assembly line," said Papadopoulos, a management consultant who created CropMobster after seeing that a significant portion of each week's harvest wasn't being sold. Determined not to let the crops go to waste, he jumped onto Facebook and sent out texts to see if his network of friends and contacts would come to the rescue.

Impressed with the results of this digital experiment, Papadopoulos and his colleagues launched the CropMobster web site which has helped save more than 40 tons of food in the Bay Area. The site is easy to use, allowing just about anyone – including farmers, retailers and caterers – to sign up and post quick alerts about surplus food, nursery seedlings, even chickens in need of new homes.

While it’s free to sign-up and use the site, CropMobster makes money through online tips and commissions – in the 10 to 20% range according to Papadopoulos – for growers who've used the application to quickly sell large amounts of perishable food, such as 10-pound cases of organic heirloom tomatoes and organic lemon cucumbers sold at 50% off by a Santa Rosa farm in late August.

"We need to have a system that is fast and that's where crowdsourcing and harnessing the power of the community is so critical in each situation of surplus and potential waste," Papadopoulos said.

Just 15 miles from Bi-Rite, in Berkeley, California, shoppers at Andronico’s are sifting through racks of organic, bagged apples and potatoes on sale for 50 cents a pound.

More than 50% of all the fruits and vegetables in the U.S. never get eaten and often end up in landfills. Photo by Sheraz Sadiq, KQED Science

More than 50% of all the fruits and vegetables in the U.S. never get eaten and often end up in landfills. Photo by Sheraz Sadiq, KQED Science

Andronico’s first began partnering with FoodStar, a Bay Area start-up that helps retailers reduce food waste, in February 2013 when it set up a bin of slightly undersized Pink Lady apples. Customers heartily snapped up the bargain apples and soon Andronico’s began offering not only surplus produce grown by California farmers but also bags of potatoes, pears, oranges and other items which are slightly blemished or undersized.

Customers learn about the “flash sales” of discounted produce three times a week at Andronico's five locations through weekly emails and the store's  Facebook page . Chad Solari, the manager of Andronico’s produce and floral departments, said that the FoodStar offerings have reduced the store’s produce waste by 10 percent.

A screenshot announcing a recent FoodStar flash sale on Andronico's Facebook page. Image courtesy of Bridget Kwok.

A screenshot announcing a recent FoodStar flash sale on Andronico's Facebook page. Image courtesy of Bridget Kwok.

“One of the things we all need to do as retailers and customers to try to reduce food waste is to think about it and put our heads together and find solutions. Our FoodStar program is a step in the right direction for the communities we serve," he said.

Who knows, there may even be a compelling business model around a store which exclusively sells discounted foods nearing their sell-by dates. 

Against the backdrop of super-sized portions and a peculiarly American appetite for excess, it's encouraging to see how retailers and startups are using the connective power of the web to speedily supply food to those in need or those simply craving a good bargain.

 

 

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Category: Climate, Food, Sustainable Food, Video

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Sheraz Sadiq

About the Author ()

Sheraz Sadiq is an Emmy Award-winning producer at San Francisco PBS affiliate KQED. In 2012, he received the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism award for a story he produced about the seismic retrofit of the Hetch Hetchy water delivery system which serves the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to producing television content for KQED Science, he has also created online features and written news articles on scientific subjects ranging from astronomy to synthetic biology.
  • Lance Torgerson

    WHAT A great idea!