"Food is probably the most inefficient of all of the major systems that we have." So said Sam Kass, a food entrepreneur who worked on food policy at the White House, at in a session at Fast Company's Innovation Festival on how business can help rebuild the broken food system.
We're throwing out 40% of the food we grow. One in three kids in the U.S. is on track to have diabetes in their lifetime, and one in five kids is food insecure. Food is both a leading cause of climate change and climate change is making it harder to grow.
Entrepreneurs are tackling those challenges in several ways.
1. Technology can drive transparency in the food system
It's still hard for consumers to know where the food they buy comes from, or how it was grown, but that's changing. Kass gave the example of spectrometers, a technology that will soon be cheap and small enough to build into mobile phones.
"You'll be in the grocery store and will be able to scan an orange just with your phone and know how old it is, where it came from, the nutrient content, how many days left until it starts to go bad, and pretty soon after that how it's going to taste," he says. "It's going to be extraordinarily disruptive. Just the mere threat of that on the market is going to clean up a lot of the stuff that's going on."
2. Startups can make healthy cooking easier
People want to cook more, as the proliferation of Blue Apron-like meal kit startups proves. But the next wave of those startups may focus more on affordability. "You've got a lot of things happening with these meal kits delivered to your doorstep, but that's addressing the needs of high-income consumers, and not the majority of consumers," says Kirsten Saenz Tobey, co-founder of Revolution Foods, a company that brings healthy meals to schools and is beginning to also sell food retail.
Startups focused on technology can also help in this space. "The kitchen is utterly unchanged for 75 years, with the exception of the microwave, which I don't think one could argue has advanced our health needs that far," says Kass. Smart ovens could tell you when to take out the chicken inside; smart fridges could give you recipes based on what food is about to go bad.
3. Better marketing can change consumer tastes
"Part of what we're trying to do is reeducate people that food is not made in a factory," says Jonathan Neman, co-founder and co-CEO of Sweetgreen, the quickly growing fast casual chain. The company lists the farmers it works with on its restaurant walls, and makes salads at the counter as customers watch.
Part of the startup's success comes from the fact that it's responding to what consumers already want in terms of transparency and "real" food. But clever marketing can push those tastes further, so more people want seasonal food or lesser-known ingredients. Sweetgreen recently started serving broccoli leaf, which tastes similar to kale but is often thrown out on farms.
4. Companies can help kids form healthier habits
"We need to make sure that at a very early age kids are being exposed to the best kids of foods," says Tobey. "Their palettes are developing and they're learning the habits of healthy eating that can last them later in life."
Tobey, a former teacher, co-founded Revolution Foods after seeing how poor nutrition affected student performance in school. But the company also believes that the 2 million meals it serves each week can have much longer effects, changing what kids choose to eat when they become adults, and dramatically lowering the risk of disease.
5. Startups that lower the carbon footprint of agriculture will also help feed us
Food and agriculture account for around 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, second only to energy—but energy technology has gotten far more attention. New companies that focus on making farming and the food system more efficient will be critical, because as the climate changes, it's also becoming much harder to grow enough food.
"Climate change is an existential threat to all of humanity, but particularly our food system," says Kass. "And all the things that we aspire to try to fix will be completely steamrolled if these current trends continue. It's almost laughable that we think we can get healthy, sustainable food at an affordable price if we're going to see even half of what's predicted on climate."