Key Takeaways from the U.S.’ Premiere Summit for Food Waste Solutions
Serving as a “State of The State” on the U.S. food loss and waste crisis; representatives from retail, food services, tech, finance, government, and non-profit sectors converged on ReFED’s 2023 Food Waste Solutions Summit this May.
Through a battery of general keynotes and more technical, specialized sessions – the 2-day event effectively made sense of the hulking and fragmented food waste problem and brought the movement’s current headwinds, tailwinds, and change-makers into a complete view.
In this report, we identify some key “learnings and takeaways” from ReFED’s Food Waste Solutions Summit that can help color your understanding of what’s happening in the United States’ food loss and waste crisis, how it is being managed and who’s leading the charge.
1. Venture Capital and Private Equity are growing more optimistic about the future of agriculture and food waste reduction tech
Private capital has the means and sway to accelerate our society’s shift towards a less wasteful future. However, their capacity to make a difference depends on the emergence of more, audacious, profitable, food waste-focused technologies that are adequately positioned to drive both impact and scale. As the space draws more corporate and government attention, venture capital (VC) and private equity (PE) firms are eager to see the space think bigger and mover faster.
FarmTech and AgTech investing has felt stagnant over the past 5+ years. The waste prevention space is proving to be a "bright spot"
The investor panel at ReFED communicated a frustration with the pace of innovation and adoption in FarmTech/AgTech, but highlighted a recent surge in momentum as more, later-stage companies have begun hitting acceptable annual revenue thresholds.
While VC and PE may be underwhelmed with the volume of advancements taking place at the farm- and consumer-ends of the food waste challenge, they are celebrating (and funding) prevention-oriented companies that are focused on creating cost and waste efficiencies within the supply chain. Companies in this space include shelf-life extension technologies, like Hazel other innovative packaging solutions, and machine learning driven demand forecasting software platforms like Afresh.
More climate-focused investors are entering the agriculture and food waste reduction sector
Panel participants signaled that there is an influx of climate investors entering into the food and ag space, bringing with them huge potential to “expand the pie” and channel more attention, opportunity, and resources into the sector.
Since the beginning of impact investing, our most urgent and obvious global, environmental priorities -- power, transportation and water solutions -- have attracted the lion's share of capital and driven the level of investment to astounding new heights. McKinsey reports that cumulative capital raised for funds related to environmental, social, and governance efforts tripled between 2019 and 2022, from $90 billion to about $270 billion. While not entirely analogous, 2023 ReFED states that over the past 11 years, the food waste solution sector has received a mere total of $9.92 billion in investments.
Among investors and business owners, there is a hope that a surge in capital from larger, less-specialized, impact funds will further stimulate innovation and transformative change within the food and ag industry, ultimately hastening the transition to a more sustainable food system.
Innovation (and value creation) in food waste reduction will remain stunted until government policy helps incentivize adoption
While potential access to more funding is exciting, the true, large-scale impact of most food waste reduction initiatives is limited by the inherent misalignment of incentives in our current economic systems. Until more policy that promotes the adoption of climate-related technologies is implemented, sustainability companies in food waste reduction and beyond will struggle to generate significant value for investors.
In 2022, the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act earmarked substantial funds for climate causes, proving a proactive, financial interest in their success. While none of those Inflation Reduction Act dollars were specifically allocated towards waste solutions, investors in all ESG spaces are confident that there will be continued momentum in top-down support through 2023 and beyond as governments and corporations increasingly accelerate the deployment of climate technologies. That said, the agriculture and food waste reduction sector will have to be more aggressive in advancing their interest and securing a seat at the table during these discussions.
2. A few stand-out, food waste reduction companies have the industry’s attention
At ReFED, there was extensive discussion about "what needed to be done." The companies mentioned below, spanning various topics and speakers, were frequently cited as promising “doers” driving the mission forward.
- EverGrain - EverGrain, an AB InBev-founded sustainable ingredient company, upcycles spent brewery grains into high-value protein and fiber ingredients for food applications. Catering to health-conscious consumers and manufacturers, their products provide eco-friendly, plant-based nutrition for dietary supplements, baked goods, and beverages.
- Afresh - Afresh develops a fresh supply chain tech platform that streamlines the management of perishable items for retailers and wholesalers. By using data-driven, ML-based algorithms and other innovative hardware components, they enhance inventory management, increase sales, reduce shrink, and optimize labor efficiency -- ultimately leading to a more sustainable and efficient fresh food ecosystem.
- Winnow - Winnow's AI technology, Winnow Vision, incorporates computer vision to automate food waste management in commercial kitchens. Leveraging the same type of technology found in autonomous vehicles, the AI is trained to "see", identify, and analyze wasted food items and their quantities. This information is used to recognize waste patterns, enabling chefs to pinpoint specific sources of waste, and effectively reducing overproduction and optimizing food preparation processes.
- Divert – Divert raised $100M in equity funding in March of 2023 and provides solutions for preventing surplus food from going to landfills and contribute to lower greenhouse gas emissions. In doing so, they help businesses and local governments tackle food waste issues, protect the environment, and generate value by enhancing resource efficiency and sustainability.
- Hazel Technologies – Develops innovative, chemistry-based solutions for pre- and post-harvest that enable growers, packers, shippers, and retailers to extend the shelf life of fresh produce and reduce food waste throughout the supply chain.
- Galley Solutions - Galley Solutions is a culinary operating system designed for foodservice professionals. Their platform streamlines tasks such as recipe management, menu planning, food costing, inventory tracking, and automated ordering. By digitizing and centralizing these foodservice tasks, the platform helps food businesses make better, more data-informed decisions that reduces waste, saves money, and supports a more sustainable food industry.
- Mori - Mori utilizes sustainable and edible ingredients, including silk protein, to create a protective layer that slows down the spoiling process of food. By extracting protein from natural silk with water and salt, Mori's technology forms an edible coating that extends the shelf life of various food products.
3. Corporate retailers are setting bold, food waste reduction strategies in motion
While foodservice companies and everyday consumers are statistically the biggest contributors in fresh food waste, retailers are often left “holding the bag” due to the optics associated with their overwhelming public display of abundance, and a misperception that their excess foods can easily be redirected towards those in need.
In reality, grocery and restaurant chains are implementing some of the most ambitious, innovative plans to curb waste and address hunger.
Starbucks x Feeding America and their game-changing backhaul logistics strategy Starbucks’ FoodShare program, in partnership with Feeding America, donates unsold food from Starbucks locations each night to local food banks, providing nearly 34 million nourishing, ready-to-eat meals across the U.S. since 2016. The program is driven by an innovative, financially self-sufficient model, that allows donated food to generate tax deductions, which then fund backhaul logistics that permits the same truck drivers who deliver supplies to Starbucks stores to also pick up donation boxes and return them to a central, Feeding America warehouse.
Albertsons Companies’ Recipe for Change committing to achieving zero food waste going to landfill by 2030 Albertsons Companies Recipe for Change program is aiming to tackle the issue of food waste across all stages of the supply chain, including farms, transportation, stores, and homes. In addition to their food waste goal of sending zero food waste to landfill by 2030, Albertsons has also set targets for a 47% carbon reduction from their own operations by 2030 and net-zero emissions in their own operations by 2040.
Albertsons plans to do this through a cyclical, six-step “Food Pathway” in their stores that is based on two foundational efforts: Reduce shrink and eliminate expenses.
Step 1: Order and produce the right items in the right quantities through the implementation of innovative, ML-driven demand forecasting platforms.
Step 2: Sell as much as possible by extending the shelf life of produce items.
Step 3: Optimize markdowns and sell good food that would otherwise be thrown out, at a discounted price.
Step 4: Get vendor credit when possible.
Step 5: Donate edible food to food banks and diverting inedible food to composting facilities.
Step 6: Use overall sales and waste data to better inform ordering, production, and demand forecasting.
4. To feed the masses, strategies between large food companies and non-profits can win big at small (local) scale
As stated above, a lack of economic incentives is the primary obstruction to sweeping, top-down initiatives that motivate retailers (or food service companies) to divert their substantial excess, edible foods to food banks. Conversations with representatives at massive retailers like Albertsons and Walmart and insight from non-profit tech products/collectives shed light on what can be done to sustainably and efficiently distribute food from retail to hungry mouths.
- Director of Waste Reduction and Circularity at Albertsons and Senior Manager of Global Sustainability at Walmart agreed on the importance of local food banks coordinating 6-day/week pick-ups from local stores. While the “haul” won’t be as large as a bi-weekly pick up, this consistent frequency allows retail teams to build these pick-ups into their store-wide processes, which takes the thinking, guessing, or forgetting out of the equation.
- Food Rescue Hero Platform - The Food Rescue Hero Platform is a technology platform and mobile app, similar in function to a Uber or DoorDash, designed to mobilize volunteers for transporting surplus food to those in need. The app alerts volunteer drivers about nearby surplus food and guides them through the pickup and delivery process step-by-step. Since 2016, Food Rescue Hero has coordinated over 150 million pounds of food waste redirection, enhancing food security for those who need it.
- Open Product Recovery (OPR) – Open Product Recovery (OPR) is an open-source project, hosted on GitHub and advanced by a national team of coders who are passionate about helping more people access good food. Open Product Recovery (OPR) aims to streamline the donation and distribution process of excess products by utilizing standardized “communication protocols.” By implementing a publicly-available API, OPR servers can publish offers of donatable products to other servers, making it easier for organizations to discover and accept these donations. This system is mutually beneficial to both donors and recipients, allowing donors an efficient way to announce their excess products and offering recipients a more accessible means of discovering available resources. With its flexible plugin system, OPR can integrate with an organization's existing inventory system, providing seamless communication between different storage systems and APIs.
5. An update from Capitol Hill: What is Washington D.C. doing to aid national efforts to curb food waste and loss?
While no meaningful legislation has recently passed related to food waste reduction, these legislative efforts showcase the growing, bi-partisan concern about food waste in the United States and the country’s commitment to addressing it through policy.
- Zero Food Waste Act (H.R. 4444) - Recently, the U.S. Congress has been considering several pieces of legislation that address food waste. One example is the Zero Food Waste Act (H.R. 4444) which aims to reduce the amount of food waste by 50 percent by 2030, relative to the amount in 2010. The Act entails the establishment of a program to award competitive grants focused on reducing food waste generation and improving food resource management.
- The COMPOST Act - Additionally, bipartisan congressional coalitions have introduced other bills that seek to address food loss and waste. Some notable examples include the COMPOST Act, which focuses on supporting composting infrastructure, and bills that aim to standardize date labeling to help consumers better understand expiration dates.
The 2023 ReFED Food Waste Solutions Summit skillfully balanced a humbling and urgent message that The Movement and those behind it are not advancing fast enough, with inspiring highlights of high-impact for- and non-profit organizations that are blazing trails through the development of innovative products, programs, and partnerships. Yet, in a system where incentives remain misaligned and efforts fragmented, the mission of reducing food waste – at scale – will require active participation and collaboration across sectors.