MIT is known for developing a lot of impressive technology. But hidden in the kitchen of MIT’s Media Lab is, perhaps, my favorite MIT invention: the FoodCam. Okay, so it may not look like much but it’s actually quite brilliant. Let’s say you have some leftover food. You put it under the camera and you hit the button. FoodCam posts a photo to Twitter, Slack, and a mailing list. All with a simple message: Come and get it! It looks like a pretty good box of donuts.
Yes. It looks yummy under FoodCam. It does. Getting the food can actually be pretty competitive. By the time we got here, just 30 seconds after it was placed, the whole building had swarmed and all the pizza was gone. There’s a mad rush of people that come from, like, every entryway in here to get the pizza. So you got to kind of move pretty quickly. Yeah, it’s a game — it’s like the Hunger Games. Where… Will and Jon invented the FoodCam all the way back in 1999. This was before Facebook. Before Gmail. Before social media as we know it. The idea came from a building-wide leftovers problem. And in some ways, this simple invention gets at the big problem of food waste. I mean that’s sort of the serious part of what you have done, really, right? There is no doubt that this completely helped reduce food waste at the lab.
Almost all of the catering people know that if they have spare food from their event, they can just hit the button and people will consume that food. And those are not even Media Lab events that are now fueling the FoodCam. When we picture the stuff that’s hurting our planet, what do we think of? We think of, like, smokestacks, cars, oil spills. We don’t really think about all the food we throw away. In the US, roughly 40% of the food we produce never gets eaten. That’s over 365 million pounds of food each day. While that’s happening, about one in eight Americans still don’t have a steady supply of food to their tables. And all of this wasted food is a huge contributor to climate change.
If global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, just behind China and the United States. So it really is an enormous problem and one of the easiest ways to address climate change. It takes a ton of resources to produce food. On top of that, you have all of the energy it takes to keep it cold and transport it around the country. And when food decomposes, it isn’t just stinky. It releases potent greenhouse gases. Basically, we’re trashing our planet to grow food that no one eats.But here’s the thing: No one actually likes wasting food. It’s just something that we haven’t been paying much attention to. Of all of the challenging problems out there, reducing the amount of food we’re wasting is one of the easiest. In the US, consumers collectively make up the largest portion of food waste. A family of four spends about $1,500 on food that they never eat. Meat is less as a percentage of what we buy but when you consider it in particular, as a greenhouse gas intensive product, meat waste actually has the highest greenhouse gas impact.
And you don’t have to be an expert to understand why food is going to waste in our homes. We’re all busy and on the go. Sometimes I buy food without thinking, “Do I really need that?” There’s even been a little bit of research to show that once something goes in the refrigerator it’s actually worth less to us than before. Researchers asked people how they would feel if they got home from the grocery store and dropped a carton of eggs.
And then they asked, well if your eggs sat in your refrigerator for six weeks and then you didn’t use them, how would you feel about that? And people felt a lot less remorse. I think a lot of the waste in our society does come down to choice and wanting to have the option to eat something at any time, whether or not we use it. Part of the reason we over-buy food is that we’ve got tons of space to store it in. Refrigerators have grown about 15% since the 1970s. One of the things we found in our research is that people are uncomfortable with white space when it comes to food. So we love it in buildings, or in design, but when it comes to food, we do not want to see empty space in our refrigerators, on our plates, and so I really believe that in some subliminal way we’re just filling everything. And if we had smaller refrigerators, that let us see everything that was in there, that in itself would lead to quite a bit less waste in our homes.
And it isn’t just our refrigerators that have gotten bigger. The average dinner plate has grown by 36% since 1960. When you have a big plate, you tend to put a lot of food on it — whether or not you can eat it all. This is something Jill Horst noticed at UC Santa Barbara. You have a tray that’s 14-by-18 inches and you feel you need to load it up with food. You would see students that had four glasses: water, juice, soda, milk — and you’d go to the tray return and they would still be full. In 2009, the dining halls stopped using trays. Students can take as much food as they want, but there isn’t a tray to pile it onto. The food waste per person, per tray, reduced by 50 percent. I mean so that was huge. Let’s say that the average student wastes six ounces of food per meal.
That may not seem like a lot — but UC Santa Barbara serves 13,000 meals per day. So that’s nearly 5,000 pounds of wasted food. It’s like throwing 350 Thanksgiving turkeys into the garbage every single day. And when you take the trays away and it becomes three ounces, that’s a significant impact to help with not only the food waste, but food cost. So, it turns out that something very small — like removing a tray or changing the size of a plate — can have this profound impact on our behavior. And it doesn’t take much effort, because the effect is subliminal. The other thing they’re paying attention to at UC Santa Barbara is portion size. Each plate is portioned one portion for a student.
They can take as many portions as they like, but we are actually plating the right size, the right amount that we should be eating. We’ve gotten used to these gigantic portion sizes at restaurants. And in a subtle way, it encourages us to overeat and throw away a lot of food. If you look around, there’s not a whole lot of food waste on the plates because of the proper portioning. I mean that’s somebody’s meal. That’s all they have left. None of us are perfect. Wasting less food isn’t just going to happen overnight. But just having it on our radar can really help us waste a lot less. And if we do have extra food, then let’s at least try to get it to people who could use it.
There is so much high-quality surplus that’s wasted, that just needs to find the people that need it the most. Komal is the founder of Copia, a startup that’s trying to recover all of this perfectly good food. If you imagine the world’s largest football stadium filled to its absolute brim that’s how much food goes wasted every single day in America — and I’m not talking about last night’s pad thai or this morning’s half-eaten pastries, but untouched, uneaten, perfectly edible food. So we don’t need to purchase or make more food. We just need to figure out how to get it to the people who need it. MIT’s FoodCam is great at recovering food. But when you start scaling this up from one building to an entire city or an entire country, it becomes much more difficult.
Let’s say you’re a small company and have 200 sandwiches left over from an event. That’s a lot of food — but it takes time and effort to figure out how and where to donate it. Most people really don’t want to deal with all this. It shouldn’t be this hard to do a good thing. Like, how cool would it be if people who have food could say, hey, we have food, and people who need food could say, hey we need food, and we could connect these two people and clear the marketplace? So Komal is trying to make food donation easy and intuitive. If you have some food, you type your info into the Copia app. A driver will then come pick up your food and deliver it to shelters that need it. And during big events, like Super Bowl 50, there’s a ton of extra food. The issue is that it has a short shelf life. Imagine four 16-foot refrigerated trucks filled to their absolute brim — that’s how much food we recovered. We fed 23,000 people in two days. Nobody slept. And it’s not you know hot dogs and popcorn.
It was lobster rolls and pulled pork sandwiches and $300 cheeses. High-quality food. If we can get food that would otherwise be wasted to people who need it, we’re not only fighting hunger, but we’re actually slowing global warming. It really is a win-win. And Komal doesn’t want to solve hunger in just California. She wants to solve world hunger — period. It’s not about optimism or pessimism. I think it’s just that we’re hell-bent on making it happen. This isn’t going to be an overnight thing. It’s got to be policy change. It’s going to be other entrepreneurs. It’s going to be really big companies and institutions also taking a stand and saying that you know what? We don’t tolerate perfectly great food being wasted. Look, no one likes throwing out food. So we made a simple guide to help you waste less. To find out more go to climate.universityofcalifornia.edu..