Conquering a “Perfect Storm”: Building Awareness & Use of Food Waste Solutions

Shelf Engine CEO Stefan Kalb joins fellow thought leaders at the Food Waste Solutions Summit to share how the private sector is making an immediate impact.
by Betsy Goldberg
food waste solutions panel at ReFED event

Solutions exist to radically reduce food waste, but we need to act now—and collaboratively—to reverse the immense toll it’s taking on people and our planet. 

That was the main message from attendees at the 2022 Food Waste Solutions Summit in Minneapolis. Sponsored by ReFED, a nonprofit advancing data-driven solutions to fight food waste, the event gathered a who’s-who list of thought leaders from the government, nonprofit, and business sectors. Its goal: To spur action toward meeting national and global goals for halving food waste by 2030. This mission, attendees agreed, is key to addressing major concerns ranging from climate change and deforestation to international food security. 

 The good news for grocery stores is that this target is achievable today, said Stefan Kalb, cofounder and CEO of Shelf Engine. Kalb shared how Shelf Engine’s technology is making an immediate impact during a tech-centric panel at the Summit. During Stepping Up to the Plate: The Private Sector’s Role in Fighting Food Waste, he joined fellow food waste warriors Gaeleen Quinn, U.S. head of impact at Too Good To Go, and panel moderator Emily Ma, head of Google’s Food for Good.

“We do something quite unique,” said Kalb, speaking of Shelf Engine’s intelligent forecasting and machine learning that predicts and orders the right amount of perishable items grocery retailers need to stock. “We ensure success in terms of developing a massive waste reduction for whatever operation we jump into, and we’re able to do that from day one that we launch with a grocery store,” said Kalb. 

Shelf Engine’s food waste solutions, which also create an average seven percent sales lift, are especially significant because grocery stores generate at least ten percent of the food waste in the U.S.

Three keys: collaboration, awareness & transparency 

Such partnerships and tech-driven food waste solutions are needed to achieve collective goals, said Ma, who’s on a mission to cut food waste at Google, which serves employees 300,000 meals each day across 56 countries. “The reason why Stefan and Gaeleen are so important to this work is because we don’t necessarily have all the answers ourselves to get there,” said Ma. “We need the help of all the entrepreneurs, all the tech companies, and partners to help us reach those goals.”

While Shelf Engine’s solution focuses on preemptively reducing waste by getting grocery orders right, Too Good To Go connects consumers and restaurants with stores that are looking to sell surplus food at a discount. Its app has seen solid success in Europe, where it was launched, and more recently has gained traction in the U.S. Relative to Europe, however, the main challenge in the States has been the limited “amount of awareness that we found on the issue of food waste, not only at a consumer level, but also at a business level,” said Quinn. 

Speaking of awareness, or lack thereof, Ma noted that an essential first step to cutting an organization’s food waste is getting a true sense of how much food it’s tossing. “Sometimes what’s actually happening on the ground … this apple being moved into this bin … is not what the data reflects,” said Ma, a self-confessed devotee of digging around waste bins to achieve accurate audits. 

Raising awareness at the business level and accurately totaling an organization’s waste data are efforts with which Kalb is intimately familiar. “Quite a big discovery for us is that the food waste numbers that are coming from grocers today are severely underreported,” said Kalb, who has also observed large containers of discarded food in the backs of stores. In many cases, he added, Shelf Engine’s audits reveal store waste to be twice the amount reported by grocers, who often rely on antiquated and faulty methods of calculation. 

Food waste solutions for the “perfect storm”

But inaccurate audits are just one challenge that grocery stores face, said Kalb. “Fresh, in grocery, has radically increased over the last 20 years and has put a tremendous amount of pressure on the grocer,” especially considering that such products have short shelf lives. “That kind of pressure has made it so that the store doesn’t yet have a solution to figure out how to appropriately keep their store stocked and keep that waste low.”

What’s more, Kalb noted, responsibility for food waste is often given to those in the organization who have the least power to make change. “So, you have this perfect storm that is developing right now. You don’t have the right accountability, you don’t have the right reporting, and you don’t have the solution for it. And so this waste over the last 20 years has skyrocketed.” In fact, supermarket waste—an estimated 43 billion pounds annually in the U.S. —has tripled over the past 50 years.

Conversely, Shelf Engine’s intelligent forecasting, deployed at more than 2,000 retail locations, typically yields up to a 50 percent reduction in food waste, said Kalb. These savings have led to enormous eco-benefits. For starters, 5.2 million pounds of food never reached landfills, resulting in a decrease of more than 8,200 tons of carbon dioxide. That’s the equivalent of taking nearly 1,800 cars off the road for a year. 

Don’t forget the bottom line

Eco-benefits are essential, but bottom lines often drive change, Ma noted. When Google realized waste has value, “we stopped seeing it as a loss … and it became a potential revenue stream,” she said, “and that’s an incredibly powerful shift but one that requires the executive team at the company to recognize that’s possible.”

Kalb concurred, noting that spurring cultural shifts at grocery stores is also tied to economics. Uncovering grocers’ inaccurate waste reporting, lack of accountability, and inadequate food waste solutions has often led to “uncomfortable conversations,” he said. But to truly effect change and inspire a culture shift, he added, “we’ve had to carry that message throughout different parts of the organization, and most importantly to that person who’s going to care the most about bottom lines—the CFO—and say ‘hey, you can make a lot more money if you care about food waste.’” 

Incentivizing stakeholders has also been central to the success of Too Good To Go, said Quinn, noting that its app simultaneously helps consumers save money and grow stores’ client lists. To date, the company has also saved 120 million meals from landfills. 

Bright lights & bold plans for food waste solutions

“Having this collection of solutions is really bringing a lot of hope to the industry,” said Quinn when asked by Ma to cite bright lights for the future in the food waste fight. 

Quinn then called on Summit attendees to continue collaborating to achieve collective goals. “Let’s work together. Let’s make it happen. Let’s be bold,” she said. “There are solutions.” 

“The bright light for us is to be able to show executives at some of these large organizations the kind of impact that we can have and what that means at scale,” said Kalb. 

“The solution is ready today,” he stressed, “and for me, I’m incredibly excited to be part of this, and honored to be part of this community. We’ll be back here in a couple of years and hopefully we’re going to show a graph that is plummeting in terms of the amount of food waste we have, and that’s an incredibly inspiring place to be.”

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