Ever heard the story about the “Food Challenge” hack day where the key result was an app to locate food trucks? It’s a joke–sadly based in some truth–told to bemoan the blinkered privilege of tech culture. Locating that awesome pulled-pork sandwich takes precedence over world hunger, environmental catastrophe, and animal welfare it seems.
But the joke is increasingly approaching its sell-by-date, as a growing cohort of apps aim to tackle a key social, environmental issue: food waste. I sat down with Vicki Hird, senior campaigner on land use, food, and water security at Friends of the Earth, to consider the pick of the crop.
If you can imagine Tinder for your kitchen, that’s a good description of Ratatouille. Load up its map and you’ll see a set of local fridges; your neighbors, who have signed up, have overfilled theirs and are soon departing on holiday. The nearest fridges, registered several miles away, are all entirely empty. Time for a transfer if the coordination works. Social networks need people to make them go, though. Leftoverswap is similar, but perhaps easier to use. Take a photo of the half-eaten pizza you can’t finish, post it, and see if anyone local wants to pick it up. Launching in NYC next month, Pareup aims to match peckish bargain-hunters with retailers who want to sell their leftovers at a discount. Hird sees how such apps could really help people be more efficient with food–as long as people use them–but still thinks it’s worth asking why we have leftovers in the first place? Why is that pizza serving way too big? Why are cafes over-ordering so they have leftovers?
A second set of projects link charities with food waste. As the Food Cowboy site informs us, it takes three weeks for Americans to waste as much food as they donate to food banks in a year. In response, the initiative aims to connect truckers, growers, and wholesalers along the supply chain with charities that might make use of food that would otherwise be dumped. Cropmobster is a similar project, based in California and the brainchild of a local farmer, and Spoiler Alert should launch later this year. As Hird points out, projects like these have run all over the world for decades, but there is a lot of scope for technology to better network everyone and make the process a lot more efficient.
Back to the more domestic food waste: There are also several apps designed to help customers decrease their personal food waste. Many of these are recipe-based. Similar to many other food apps, they have ideas for inventive things to do with leftovers and space for people to share recipes. The Leftovers app seems the most usable, but Love Food, Hate Waste–from resource efficiency campaign WRAP–also has notes on portion quantity designed to help you shop better, too. Perhaps the most developed of these is Food Rescue, a partnership between Google and U.K. supermarket chain Sainsbury’s.
Hird’s impressed by a lot of this, thinking it offers a chance to change the culture of leftovers. “They are making it into a more attractive proposition than just eating leftovers. It makes using up food waste wise and clever. You can do great things. It’s not about being boring, or poor and needing to eat scraps,” she said.
We might argue that customer-based apps offer a way for retailers to devolve responsibility. Hird agrees this is possible. Supermarkets may blame the farmers and the customers for waste, but they should also look at their bad ordering practices and improvements that can be made in-store, too. If two in three bagged salads are being wasted, why are they being marketed in the first place? Still, Hird is keen to stress, there is a lot of food waste in the home; we should be tackling this, and apps can be part of such action.
Food waste apps aren’t the only ways smartphones are being applied to change how smartly we shop. The Buycott app, for example, lets you scan to learn more about where food has come from. First developed to help people learn if the Koch Brothers were profiting from their weekly shopping, Buycott soon became popular with anti-Montanto and pro-Palestine campaigns. For Hird, such developments are powerful, but also limited.
“Some people are going to want to know all about the products they buy. And the easier it is to access this information, the more this group will expand. But it will never be everyone. And I don’t think everyone should have to know everything. They are too busy or not interested. The products offered up for us to buy just shouldn’t do harm,” she said.
How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our The Future of Food section, which covers new innovations changing everything from farming to cooking. Click the logo to read more.