The Report

Making food waste visceral, on a grand scale

Making food waste visceral, on a grand scale

Posting in Food | From Issue 07 January 13, 2014

The U.S. foodservice industry tosses out billions of dollars along with its stale bread and sour milk. Andrew Shakman's LeanPath has a recipe to cut those losses.

Chances are, when you were a child you never dreamed of making it onto the 20 Most Influential list in Foodservice Director magazine. Andrew Shakman never did, either, but his arrival on that 2012 ranking was an acknowledgement from the industry that his efforts to curb food waste -- through his 10-year-old company LeanPath in Portland, Ore. -- have gained traction. 

The statistics about the problem that Shakman seeks to address are staggering: globally, one-third of all food is wasted. The United States alone trashes 40 percent of what it could consume: in fact food waste is the single biggest component of landfills. No single approach will solve the crisis. If you think “crisis” is hyperbole, consider the United Nations finding that the environmental impact of the 1.3 billion tons of food that goes to waste around the world each year makes the industry the third largest carbon dioxide emitter, after China and the United States. But Shakman has found a way to use information technology to change the way that foodservice workers think about waste.

LeanPath’s core offering, LeanPath 360, is a touchscreen tablet linked to a scale and camera unit. Before tossing food into the trash, the system requires food service workers to place the items to be discarded onto the scale, log into the application, select the items being trashed and note the reason they are being thrown out -- such as overproduction, spoilage, expiration, or food trim techniques. The camera snaps an image of the items and sends it, along with the corresponding data, to a cloud-based database. Think of it as Facebook for rejected food.

Over time, this data is compiled and analyzed, showing the cumulative effect of the daily dump. This is where LeanPath flexes its muscle and turns that information into a tool for changing behavior, says Shakman, a student of behavioral science. “Employees exercise their own judgment in good faith,” he says. “They don’t serve unsafe food, they do things to minimize labor -- all these things are baked into the culture of the [industry].” While decisions made around safety are paramount, there’s still a tremendous amount of waste that can be cut while maintaining food quality, he believes.

Using LeanPath, managers can see which items tend to be trashed in the greatest quantity, as well as the reasons they’re tossed. The data can be parsed by employee, viewed on a leaderboard, and used to encourage less wasteful practices. In the short term, this might lead to an increase in more conservative practices, through a phenomenon such as commitment bias, wherein workers are more likely to follow through on actions they’ve overtly agreed to perform. This can “turn workers into waste advocates,” Shakman says. 

But what about six months or three years later? “It has to be so easy to use that people don’t think twice about using it,” he says, but notes managers should also randomize incentives (like a slot machine) to keep workers engaged in reducing waste over the long term. To do that, LeanPath makes the data relatable and casts it in stark terms. “We use vividness effects to show the equivalent, in terms of dollars and the environmental impact, of a given amount of trashed food,” Shankman notes. “That could make someone realize ‘I just threw away my daily wage!’” The data can also be extrapolated to show the financial and environmental impact over a full year, based on daily food waste levels.

The holy grail is, of course, not to get really good at documenting the waste but to prevent the waste from happening. To do that, managers use LeanPath data to find paths to reducing food orders to match supply with trend patterns and demand. Shakman estimates that each year the U.S. foodservice industry alone loses between $8 and $20 billion dollars through food waste.

LeanPath clients include colleges, hotels, casinos, and hospitals -- such as the University of California at Berkeley and the MGM Grand Buffet in Las Vegas. Most organizations see between 2 percent and 6 percent reduction in food costs after deploying LeanPath, according to the company. “That happens pretty fast,” Shakman says. “And in almost all cases they see a payback in their investment in under a year.” (LeanPath is offered through a subscription model, fees range from $200 to $1,000 per month depending on customer needs.) Some LeanPath accounts have realized reductions of 50 percent or more in “pre-consumer” food waste, that is the food tossed out due to overproduction, spoilage, trimmings or handling errors, Shankman estimates.

The food service industry is one of many contributors to the food waste problem, but it can also play a major role in addressing it. LeanPath plans to extend its data-based, behavior-changing approach to restaurants soon. Who knows, maybe one day there will be similar solutions for home kitchens. Shakman certainly has captured the attention of others committed to fighting food waste, such as Dana Gunders, a project scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

“Andrew is the smartest guy I know on this topic,” she gushes.

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure