When wholesalers and retailers have live produce that's on its way out, they throw it away. They can't sell discolored, blemished or bruised fruit and vegetables. They feel like they have no alternative. Nobody comes to collect the food, and, in any case, grocers worry about passing on possibly unsafe produce.
In other words, a lot of food gets wasted because of timing. There's no secondary system to collect the food—which probably still has several uses—at the moment it becomes available. One of the biggest reasons for food waste (the U.S. wastes 40% of everything it produces) is that people can't get to it quick enough.
It's one reason charities tend to rely on dry goods. They don't have the intelligence to know where the food is, the infrastructure to gather it (like a fleet of small trucks)—and certainly not the logistics planning system.
It's that logistics gap that Maryland-based Food Cowboy is trying to fill, with a live crowd-sourced map of food going to waste, and back-end accounts for charities, retailers and wholesalers to manage their part of the supply chain.
"We figured out that, from your cell phone, you can mimic a lot of logistics that big companies use," says cofounder Roger Gordon. He calls Food Cowboy an "air-traffic control or a routing system" for unwanted foodstuffs.
The key problem is the unpredictability of food waste, Gordon believes. You don't know where it is going to crop up, how much there will be, and what condition it might be in. The app alerts charities to produce available in their area, and gives information about its quality and number.
Food Cowboy has a database of 700 charities, including 350 food banks, and works with 500 truckers around the country. One recent example of the system in action: a trucker carried 22 pallets of tomatoes to a Walmart distribution center in Nebraska. Two of the pallets were over-ripe. Normally, drivers would probably throw the produce away. They're not going to travel 1,000 miles back with rotting tomatoes. But this driver opened the Food Cowboy app and placed an alert. An hour later a local charity had two boxes of lovely tomatoes.
To get more people crowd-sourcing the system, Food Cowboy is organizing the "Great Food Roundup" this October—a sort of online food-drive for waste. Using Foursquare, the company plans to map food waste across the country. "People can down load our app and when they see food or buy food [that's going to waste]—they can put it on the map," Gordon says. "That way, our local food partners can go and recover the food."
Along with services like Cropmobster, another early warning system for perishable food, Food Cowboy shows how relatively simple technology can potentially solve a major problem. Putting more produce into the hands of food banks allows them to offer fresh, nutritious meals, rather than always relying on processed stuff.
Gordon wants to sign up 50,000 restaurants, as well as every supermarket in the country. "We want every supermarket donating actively. Now we've got the infrastructure finally to support them," he says.