ASU researchers tackle ways to combat food waste

They lined up early on a recent chilly Saturday, cardboard boxes in hand and carts at the ready for the chance to buy inexpensive produce at a small parking lot at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus.

Before them were a bounty of green peppers, red tomatoes, and green and yellow squash. There were deep purple eggplants. Off to one side were still more bins, these containing tomatillos ripe for the choosing.

At this open-air market run by Borderlands Produce Rescue, $12 buys a shopper 70 pounds of produce to pack the pantry, but also fulfills the desire to help eliminate the problem of food waste in Arizona and beyond.

Now, the goal of finding wanting stomachs for the goods destined for landfills has received a boost from Professor of Agribusiness Tim Richards, one of two W.P. Carey School faculty looking into food waste.

With the help of nearly $1 million in combined grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Richards and fellow Professor of Supply Chain Management Elliot Rabinovich will spend time crunching the data and looking into ways to better provide for today’s food needs and ensure that future demands can be met. The two-year federal grants were among $17.5 million awarded in 2016 to 47 projects through the agency’s Agriculture and Food Research Institute as part of the re-authorized 2014 Farms Bill.

Richards says it was a natural extension of his continuing research in the field to work with the Nogales-based, non-profit Borderlands group that among other projects takes tons of surplus and so-called ugly fruit and vegetables from Mexico and re-distributes it to consumers in spots throughout Arizona.

The Produce on Wheels Without Waste, or P.O.W.W.O.W. program, is hosted by community groups and operates weekly during the produce season, typically November through August. It is run with the help of volunteers, including some ASU students.

“They were just flying by the seat of their pants,” says Richards. “We’re going to help them find a better way to get the word out about what they are doing and maybe have them do things a little differently. The goal is to help them figure out how to move more fresh produce — that will be good for them and help everyone in the long run.”

He says a survey is in the works to help guide any future steps to be taken to help build the program.

Richards says he has spent much of the $496,589 grant studying the prospects of companies using online platforms to sell ugly produce — those ill-shaped or sized products that don’t make the cut to be displayed on shelves of the neighborhood grocery store.

The research focused on analyzing data from Imperfect Produce Inc., a small San Francisco Bay-area startup delivery company hoping to reduce food waste by serving as the go-between farmer and consumer.

Under the setup, Imperfect Produce buys the ugly fruit and vegetables that would not usually make it out of the field and sells and delivers it to the homes of subscribers. Patrons are able to customize online what offerings they want, helping eliminate still more food waste.

The roughly 150-member group of farmers and producers get money for produce that normally would have gone unsold, and customers get what they will eat at a reduced rate from what they would pay at the store.

The rapidly expanding program is available in 18 U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, Portland, and Washington, D.C., according to the company’s website.

The study included analyzing two years of company transactions, including the amounts of produce ordered, prices paid for the goods, and the attributes of consumers and the sharing firms involved.

I guess you could say they are the Uber for wasted food. What we found is that their business model really does work. They are growing like gangbusters.

— Tim Richards, Professor of Agribusiness and Marvin and June Morrison Chair of Agribusiness

Richards says the research found that the model also could have broader implications than just being used for produce that would not regularly enter the supply chain system. He adds that the same concept could possibly be expanded to leftover perishables from retail stores, household compost, and restaurant waste.

Eliminating bakery waste

The second research project tackled the food waste problem by studying packaged baked goods on the East Coast, not fresh produce emanating in the West.

Rabinovich, AVNET professor of chain supply management, used a $496,407 federal grant to examine the contractual relationships and management practices that exist among various retailers and suppliers in today’s grocery world.

The research focused on scan-based technology, an approach that turns the traditional retailer-supplier upside down with suppliers assuming township of their products until it is rung up on the check-out register.

That’s a turnabout from the past days when a retailer took ownership of an item once it passed through their store’s front door or arrived in the company warehouse.

Under this scenario, any loss created by such things as expired inventory, broken cartons, and theft — commonly referred to as shrinkage — becomes the responsibility of the supplier and not the retailer.

Over the years, retailers have become increasingly more creative with how they contract. That’s definitely made a difference.

— Elliot Rabinovich, Professor of Supply Chain Management and AVNET Professor of Supply Chain Management

To study these impacts, researchers analyzed the level of inventory shrinkage involving packaged baked goods sold across 40 stores owned by four unnamed grocery chains in the northwestern United States. Six months of data were reviewed during the research.

Two of the chains involved took control of the inventory from the outset of the process as had been the tradition, while the others did not.

Rabinovich says the research showed that a middle-ground approach may be the best way to go when it comes to the ultimate model for success at least as it pertains to these goods.

“We suggest that one thing they could do is share the risk of incurring the waste instead of putting it all on the supplier,” he says. “That may be the best way to for everyone involved.”

The next step, says Rabinovich, is to see how to best implement the findings in this field and determine how it could be expanded to other products found on retailer shelves.

“We’re interested in finding out how this would fit into the bigger picture for retailers,” he says. “How much of an effect will it have? That is still to be determined.”

Rabinovich conducted the research along with Richards and Min Choi, a management professor at California State University – Fullerton.

Both Rabinovich and Richards say that continued research needs to be done in the area of food waste here and worldwide to prepare for a world population that is estimated to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050.

They point to statistics that can be jarring. For example, officials conservatively estimate that about 18% of the solid waste material found at municipal landfills in Arizona and nationwide is food waste. In fact, if it was a country, food waste would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the world (behind the US and China).

Among the keys to making an impact will be collaboration among those in the industry, which has a tradition of such efforts to address problems. This combined with a more educated and aware public about the ever-increasing problem of food waste also may make a difference.

“The more conscious consumers are about waste, the more likely they will be to make better use of the food they buy, and that means plan better,” says Richards, who is currently working on several other grant-sponsored, food waste-related research projects.

“Perhaps if they knew what the environmental impacts were, they would be more careful.”

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