Q&A

Reducing Food Waste From the Farm to the Fridge

We sit down with Masters of Sustainability students Hollie Chung, Neha Nagpal, and Narges Aflatounian, whose recent innovation for minimising food waste won the India-Australia Circular Economy Hackathon.

Image by Mehrad Vosoughi, via Unsplash

Liberty Lawson: Congratulations on your win! Could you tell us a bit about yourselves and your backgrounds?

Nothing connects people like a shared cause! We hate food waste, and we love our planet. We met through the USYD’s Master of Sustainability program, but we did not get to meet face-to-face on campus because of the pandemic. Thankfully, we had a WhatsApp group among the students of the Sustainability Master Program to keep conversations going and learned about the CSIRO’s India-Australia Circular Economy Hackathon (I-ACEH). We three had similar academic aspirations and work ethics and were able to get along on friendly terms so we agreed to join the hackathon together to apply our learnings and gain industry experience and exposure.

Winning the competition was not on our agenda, so it was definitely a bonus! We were glad that we have diverse career and academic backgrounds where each of us had something unique to offer; Hollie, a corporate sustainability professional with an interest in circular economy; Neha, a marketing communications specialist with a passion for sustainability and planning; and Narges, a civil engineer with a love for data and carbon footprinting. We also came from different places, Hong Kong, India, and Iran, respectively, which worked as a bonus in bringing cultural perspectives to our solution.

What inspired you to tackle food waste?

Food waste is a topic that is close to our daily lives, and we were shocked that a majority of it was sent to landfill, according to the National Food Waste Baseline Report.1 While most complex problems require policy regulations for mitigation, food waste is an issue where the end consumer plays a significant role. Simply by changing behaviours and adjusting consumption, we can address a part of the problem. Because of the hackathon, we were eager to find innovative ways to fix more gaps in the food supply chain. By connecting the supply (farms) and demand (households) areas, we could help avoid food loss and waste from occurring in the first place. Households and farms are also the two largest food waste contributing sectors along the food supply chain, 34% and 31% respectively. Due to COVID, food waste volume has significantly increased by 20% according to the most recent research by Rabobank.2 There was a sense of urgency to solve the issue that is related to our day-to-day lives, specifically since the waste volume has escalated in the past 12 months.

As conscious consumers and regular home cooks, food and produce waste seldom occurs in our households. However, this is perhaps a rare case. As suggested by statistics from the Rabobank 2020 Food Waste Report, Gen Z and Gen Y had the highest food wasted per week, 18.4% and 15.7%, respectively.3 Our solution hopes to raise awareness for conscious grocery shopping and drive the demand for local, seasonal products by providing incentives and convenience for users in their grocery shopping and meal preparation. 

During the 4-day hackathon, we also created a survey to collect data on household food waste awareness and volume generated. We are grateful to have received 100+ responses from our friends and network and were able to present the findings to support the need for our solution.

Since the start of the pandemic, food waste volume has significantly increased by 20%. Graphic from Rabobank’s 2020 Food Waste Report.

 Why is food waste such a complex issue?

There are multiple problem areas within the food supply chain; the two that we focus on have their own unique set of challenges. On the consumer end, changing mindsets and habits can be very tricky; hence, using incentives to motivate users can give better results. As for the supply end of the chain, the flow of data and intelligence is needed for improving farming practices. While the obvious solution is connecting supply and demand, it is difficult to execute. It gets harder as the supply chain becomes longer. If it was simple, there would be no need for our solution! Another influential area is the large supermarket chains that have significant control over the suppliers. All this has to be weighed in when thinking of the food systems in Australia.

Tell us about your prize-winning project – Thrifty Master Chef.

Our solution is not a technology breakthrough but more about looking at the problem from a different angle. Many of the existing food waste campaigns and programs target the green niche market (environmentally conscious people), but we see an opportunity to expand the audience and, therefore, the impact. We are attempting to use a systemic approach rather than focusing on one sector. We hope to leverage the fact that COVID-19 has left households with tighter budgets and more home-cooking opportunities. We see our solution to help individuals and households save money on grocery shopping and provide convenience for meal preparation at home while building a national zero waste culture across Australia, as emphasised in the National Circular Economy Roadmap.4

As a person who started living on my own not long ago, I fully understand the frustration of daily cooking chores because of limited time, budget and cooking experience. It certainly is not much fun to check what is left in your fridge and cook after a day of work/study! But it does not have to be like this; cooking at home can become a convenient, healthy, budget and planet friendly alternative to eating out. The crucial starting point is conscious grocery shopping, and our solution will help you achieve that, step-by-step.

“Cooking at home can become a convenient, healthy, budget and planet friendly alternative to eating out. The crucial starting point is conscious grocery shopping, and our solution will help you achieve that, step-by-step.”

How do you hope that your idea will help shift the current food supply chain to be more accountable, seasonal and sustainable?

The foundation of the application is the cardinal rules of demand and supply economics. Through smart pricing and promotion strategies, we can increase the sales of local, seasonal, low-carbon produce. Leveraging the power of Artificial Intelligence, the app will optimise user profile to customise shopping, cooking activity, and disposal to reduce food waste. The user journey is designed based on behavioural economics, which over time will lead to a change in purchase and consumption habits. Additionally, data analytics and market insights will be utilised to change supplier and farm practices and drive the shift towards shorter supply chains, more local, seasonal and sustainable produce.

From a seed, our idea has grown into a sapling thanks to mentors and workshops at I-ACEH. Going into the competition, we had humble expectations that we would test our learnings and give it our best shot. During the four days of masterclasses, industry experts’ talks, one-on-one mentor sessions, and three levels of pitching, we realised the potential of our idea and filled the gaps that were highlighted by our mentor and in judges’ feedback. By the final pitch stage, we knew we had a good solution that looks at the food system as a whole. Having seized the win, we believe in this solution even more and want to turn it into a product. We are looking into joining an accelerator program and continue to work towards challenging the status quo and breaking the silos in the food supply chain.

Hollie Chung (left), Neha Nagpal (middle), and Narges Aflatounian (right), the Student Team Winner of the India-Australia Circular Economy Hackathon: Innovation in food supply chains avoiding waste.

References
1. Arcadis (2019). National Food Waste Baseline Final Assessment Report.
2. Rabobank (2020). The 2020 Food Waste Report.
3. Ibid.
4. CSIRO (2021). National Circular Economy Roadmap for Plastics, Glass, Paper and Tyres.