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Try to stomach this: more than 30 percent of the U.S. food supply went uneaten in 2010. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study released earlier this year, that's 133 billion pounds—$160 billion worth of breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and dinners—that ended up in dumpsters instead of bellies.
To help make these figures more palatable in the future, a new mobile marketplace called PareUp wants to start slashing them, by connecting bargain-hunting consumers with retailers looking to unload, not waste, their surplus stock.
From baked goods to fresh produce, retailers can list items that are approaching their sell-by dates or suffering from visual imperfections on the app. Consumers can then scoop them up at discounted prices, purchased and picked up in-store. It’s a true triple-bottom line win for people, profit, and the planet. As Margaret Tung, who co-founded PareUp alongside Jason Chen and Anuj Jhunjhunwala explains, cutting back on food waste is an issue that is ripe for the picking.
It seems like PareUp is taking a cue from the freegan philosophy, right? Except this is sort of pre-dumpster diving.
We actually took our cue from platforms like Cropmobster, which deals specifically with farm produce and other sharing economy models that try to maximize underutilized resources or goods. Freeganism and dumpster diving may figure somewhere in there, but we are attempting to address a major inefficiency in the system by offering both businesses and users incentives to reduce the amount of good food that's getting thrown out.
Ideally, how much food are you hoping to keep out of landfills? And what sort of outcome would you deem a success?
Well, we’re starting with retail, which is responsible for up to 20 percent of the total annual food loss in this country. That’s about 14 billion pounds of food, and about $33 billion in lost revenue for businesses. I think near total recovery of that percentage is a long-term goal, but that’s what we’re targeting. We work hard and like to aim high! Right now, success for us would be a strong launch in New York City, where we’re starting.
What kinds of food policy are you bumping up against, if any, in terms of sell-by dates and such?
Foods past expiration cannot be listed on our platform. We feel very strongly about that, as do all of the businesses we work with. The last thing we all want is for someone to get sick, and we take that very seriously. Expiration dates and sell-by dates are great guidelines for places that want to list things on our platform, but I think, in general, for consumers there’s a lot of confusion around what those terms actually mean and signify, and we hope to help clear that up.
Separately, people have a lot of questions about food banks, shelters, and other recovery agencies. The fact is that the reach of these nonprofits is limited by their own budgets, and it’s more efficient for them to deal in larger volume. Many retailers don’t meet the minimum weight requirements [that recovery agencies require to make a pickup] and, for them, pickup can be inconsistent to the point of inconvenience for some managers and owners, which may cause them to stop participating.
Food safety is also a huge priority for recovery organizations when it comes to serving their recipients. And because they have to transport food, sometimes more than once, there are certain items that either they don’t feel comfortable taking or businesses don’t feel comfortable offering.
There are a lot of factors at play here, from consumer interests to business interests and practices to the very real limitations that nonprofits face. I want to be upfront and say that we’re not out to solve the question of food access or hunger, nor are we directly trying to save the environment. We’re here to minimize the amount of good food that’s thrown out by connecting businesses to people nearby who want it. If that means fewer tons of food in landfill and fewer greenhouse gases as a result, great. If that means that people who use our app have access to foods that they otherwise might not have, awesome.
We’re addressing a social issue that has greater implications, but we’re also just one part of the equation, and there is a lot of awesome work being done by organizations like Zero Percent, City Harvest, Food Cowboy, Feeding America, and countless other groups and individuals. We’re going to assess how we fit into the scene as we grow, and we’re obviously interested in figuring out how we might apply what we’re doing to help recovery agencies maximize their opportunities. But, for now, we’re just trying to focus on our first iteration.
What’s the current status of PareUp and the rollout plan?
We’re actively recruiting vendors, like raw juice bars, cafés, small bakeries, and retailers that have food served from a steam table or hot bar. Once we have a good concentration of stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan, we’ll enable a function on the website for consumers to browse items and businesses will be able to start listing. This will essentially give people on both sides a glimpse of how our platform works before our mobile app officially hits the App Store, hopefully, in early October. We’ll soon have a test version of our mobile app available for those vendors and consumers interested in testing out the app out while it’s still in development.
And, of course, within the next year, we’d like to be in a few more U.S. cities.
Give PareUp a hand in scaling back on food waste by contributing to their Indiegogo campaign (open until September 28, 2014) to help them build a smarter, faster platform and sign up more businesses.
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