Andrew Hoeft   |   June 27, 2024

2024 ReFED Summit: Unpacking the Insights on Food Waste and Sustainability

The 2024 ReFED Summit brought to light some critical issues and innovative solutions surrounding food waste in the US. Let’s dive into the key takeaways and what they mean for the future of sustainability. 
US Food Waste: A Stark Reality

In 2023, the US saw an alarming contradiction: while 44 million people faced hunger (about twice the population of New York), 13 million tons of food went to waste. Despite efforts, food waste from farm to fork has slightly increased since 2016. This calls for urgent action and effective solutions across the supply chain. 

Retailer Investments: ROI vs. Sustainability

US retailers are increasingly focused on sustainability, but economic impact remains a driving factor. Solution providers and retailers need to demonstrate a clear, measurable return on investment (ROI) to unlock funding for sustainability initiatives. In contrast, European retailers are more apt to invest in earlier-stage, less economically proven solutions, prioritizing effectiveness over efficiency. As retailers push to achieve the United Nations SDG 12.3 goal of 50% reduction in waste by 2030, retailers begin to face diminishing returns, motivating them to experiment with new technologies. 

Culture: The Backbone of Sustainability

Achieving long-term sustainability in any organization hinges on cultivating the right culture. This involves: 

  1. Aligning values from the executive level downwards. 
  2. Empowering future leaders to challenge the status quo. 

Sustained, incremental improvements require these cultural shifts to ensure teams adapt and evolve over time. 

The Reality of AI in Food Waste Solutions

The hype around AI in food waste management is at its peak, but not all AI solutions are created equal. Many providers claim advanced AI capabilities, yet few disclose their accuracy results. Retailers and investors must conduct thorough due diligence to assess the robustness and accuracy of AI solutions before making investments. 

Moving Towards Integrated Food Waste Solutions

Currently, food waste solution investments are often one-off purchases. The next wave will likely focus on connecting the dots across the retail supply chain. This involves improving every step from assortment planning and ordering to production, date tracking, markdown, and mitigation channels like anaerobic digestion and composting. Integration and shared learnings at each stage are crucial for comprehensive food waste reduction. 

Noteworthy Solution Providers 

Afterlife: This innovative company converts restaurant prep waste into fresh mushrooms, using the leftover nutrient-rich soil for farms. Impressively, they achieve a nearly perfect 1:1 waste-to-food production ratio, with each pound of food waste yielding almost a full pound of mushrooms. According to Afterlife’s CEO, 80-85% of food prep business waste is scrap, which can only be mitigated through recovery efforts like Afterlife, composting, or anaerobic digestion. 

Winnow: Considering you can’t improve what you can’t measure, Winnow plays a critical role in our food waste solution ecosystem. Their AI-powered platform combines cameras with a weighted scale to capture what is going into the trash bins and how much. While solutions such as Orbisk and Phood exist in the market, Winnow is certainly a strong contender with the ability to uniquely measure prep vs. plate waste, provide valuable insights and recommendations on how to mitigate future waste, and the API feeds necessary to support a connected food waste ecosystem.

The 2024 ReFED Summit highlighted the urgent need for innovative solutions and cultural shifts to tackle food waste. By focusing on measurable ROI, thorough evaluation of AI solutions, and integrated approaches, we can make significant strides toward a sustainable future. 

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Andrew Hoeft

SVP, Retail Strategies at Upshop