Thirteen boxes of kale, 75 pounds of certified organic heirloom tomatoes, 65 pounds of Ambrosia cantaloupe melons. These are just some of the more recent entries at CropMobster.com, an early warning system for food that's about to go to waste. There are also 15 (egg laying) White Leghorn hens needing a home, and dozens of meat morsels that will spoil unless someone collects them. Best of all, much of this lovingly produced produce is heavily discounted, or even free. All you need to take advantage of it is a car.
CropMobster is the creation of Nick Papadopoulos, a farmer from Petaluma, California, who has had enough of food waste. Earlier this year, he was standing in the vegetable cooler on his farm when he realized he had to do something. "For the last eight months, I'd been watching perfectly edible, nutritious, premium vegetables go to the chickens and the compost pile," he says. "We had all this unsold stuff we'd taken to farmers markets, or over-harvested the week before. It just hit my brain finally that this was a massive problem for our farm, so I got to work."
Papadopoulos came late to agriculture. His wife's family owns Bloomfield Farms, and he only started managing the place about a year ago. He previously worked as a consultant, giving him a newcomer's perspective on the waste issue, which perhaps makes him less willing to acquiesce than others.
"Imagine if 40% of mobile devices rolled off the assembly line and went immediately to landfill? That's crazy," he says. "Somehow in food it's become accepted. The first thing we need is a mindset shift to get people to think about this differently. Then, we can use the gear at our disposal to make improvements."
Papadopoulos's first effort at that is Cropmobster, a simple alert system for farmers and grocers in the San Francisco Bay Area, that he created with a web developer friend earlier this year. Producers and vendors put up an entry (kale, chickens), which is sent out via email, Twitter, and Facebook, and eventually, as the information gets shared, the food finds a home.
Cropmobster has sold or donated 100,000 pounds of produce so far. Three hundred producers and grocers have signed up to the service, with 80 to 90 using it regularly. About 5,000 people are registered for the alerts.
Papadopoulos says, that when he started, he didn't appreciate the wider food waste problem: that up to 40% of food gets wasted in the U.S., and that food production is responsible for a host of needless environmental damages.
At the same time, he also wants to help farmers like himself, who don't have time to sell excess produce through normal channels. Many of the small farms he knows are struggling to make a living at the moment, he says.
"This makes it fun to post an alert versus four hours on the phone to find a home for something that they're going to make little money on. Plus, the alert tells the story about your farm. We include some blue-collar SEO and that gets our producers out there on the Internet. That's good, because advertising is cost prohibitive," he says.
There's also an opportunity to help vulnerable groups who lack access to quality food (or sometimes any food). Many of the lots have been taken by citizens wanting to help their communities. In other cases, gleaners have come in to harvest food, and take it to food banks.
Papadopoulos is now looking for funding and extra manpower to develop Cropmobsters in other communities and to explore other potential business models—like, perhaps, a Groupon-like deals service (though we've all seen how well that has turned out for Groupon).
"We've got a huge issue with food waste and that the majority of farmers lose money. There's also a problem of food insecurity or people being priced out of the good stuff," he says. "We have the tools to put together a community exchange to foster some sharing economy. We want to get people sharing this information or maybe going in together to buy the food."