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The Challenge

Help reduce the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted every year and equip food industry players with the design principles and support to cut waste further.

The Outcome

An array of innovations to help individuals, businesses, and governments design waste out of the food system.

Many of us have let vegetables wither in the crisper drawer, or thrown out a child’s half-eaten restaurant meal, but the sheer scale of food waste around the globe is hard to grasp. According to the United Nations, about a third of the food the world produces every year—1.3 billion tons—is lost during production or tossed by consumers, with North Americans throwing out the most food per capita. The average American wastes enough food each month to feed another person for 19 days.

IDEO received a series of grants from The Rockefeller Foundation to find solutions, given the power of IDEO’s human-centered design approach to address systemic challenges. Through a number of projects with The Rockefeller Foundation and other organizations, IDEO designers from across the U.S. devised novel ways to tackle food waste.

For IDEO’s first initiative, designers tapped into the enthusiasm of the broader creative community, in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, the City of San Francisco’s Department of Environment, the Closed Loop Foundation, ReFED, and other groups. In the summer of 2016, OpenIDEO—IDEO’s open innovation practice—launched the Food Waste Challenge, asking how people might curtail waste by rethinking our relationship with food. Between June and October, more than 20,000 people from 113 countries took part in the challenge, tracking their personal waste and brainstorming solutions.

Ideo Food Waste Full Cycle Bioplastics 2

Image by Full Cycle Bioplastics

Full Cycle Bioplastics, a company that converts organic matter like inedible food waste into a compostable alternative to oil-based plastic, tests its technology. As the top contender in the Food Waste Challenge, the company received $50,000, allowing it to dramatically scale up material production and product development efforts.

Challenge participants submitted more than 450 ideas. A team of food industry experts helped select the 12 top proposals, which included software to help people buy food collectively from wholesalers and a service that delivers extra meals from corporate events to those in need. Ultimately, the Closed Loop Foundation chose to award Full Cycle Bioplastics a $50,000 grant to scale up its idea to convert inedible food and paper waste into a fully compostable alternative to oil-based plastic.

At the conclusion of the Food Waste Challenge, OpenIDEO launched the Food Waste Alliance, a platform for participants and experts to stay engaged with the most promising ideas and innovators. The alliance helped entrepreneurs share resources, prototype new concepts, secure funding, hire staff, and form partnerships. OpenIDEO invited hundreds to join the alliance, and 92 percent of members told IDEO they made progress in their work as a result. One member company, RISE, received funding from another participant who discovered RISE through the alliance. This investment let RISE prototype its concept for milling spent grain from beer brewing into flour for baked goods and ultimately join the prestigious Food-X accelerator.

Open Ideo Food Waste Alliance 2A

The OpenIDEO Food Waste Alliance, a curated community helping innovators find support, build partnerships, and use design techniques to reduce food waste.

We know there's no silver bullet for complex issues like food waste—we need engagement with diverse audiences, a range of innovative solutions, and, above all, collaboration. The Food Waste Alliance is a platform that can turn ideas into global solutions.

Devon Klatell, Senior Associate Director, Food Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation

The Rockefeller Foundation also supported IDEO’s work with City Harvest, a New York organization that collects 160,000 pounds of unused food each day and delivers it to soup kitchens and food pantries. City Harvest wanted to understand the habits of local families who visit food banks in an effort to ensure all the food the group distributes gets eaten. To get a peek into these families’ kitchens, in January 2017, IDEO researchers conducted observations and interviews across New York City’s five boroughs. Pantry customers cooked for the researchers, giving them an inside look at how the families engaged with the food they had available and what food meant to each of them: tradition, stability, even adventure. Based on insights from pantry visitors, IDEO made recommendations for City Harvest, including community-run cooking classes and a way for families to request specific foods or reserve pick-up times by text message. IDEO also created three video vignettes to help build even greater empathy between City Harvest and the people it serves.

Food Waste Video Still Cc

City Harvest and IDEO interviewed Gloria, a mother of three who uses food to express her love.

We find ourselves operating in a very fast-paced environment. Working with IDEO let us settle into a space of inquiry and imagine how we could better serve our food insecure neighbors by examining our work through a human-centered design lens. The experience continues to impact our thinking.

Kate MacKenzie, Senior Director of Programs, City Harvest

In spring 2017, capping IDEO’s work with The Rockefeller Foundation, the organizations teamed up with World Wildlife Fund and Hyatt hotels in Florida, New York, and New Jersey to rethink all-you-can-eat buffets. IDEO studied diners and staff at Hyatt buffets and found that employees—from event planners to kitchen staff—each add a cushion of extra food to cover their bases, while guests overfill their plates to avoid missing out. In the end, diners eat just half the food organizers serve, while the rest goes to waste. This and other data-driven insights gleaned about diners’ habits led to subtle substitutions, including smaller plates of meats and cheeses that can be ordered from servers and individual pastries rather than whole cakes. These alternatives have not only built on Hyatt’s existing food waste management strategies, but have also helped reduce buffet costs at Hyatt Regency Orlando and continued to receive support from guests.

The problem of food waste is too enormous to ignore. Wasted food means squandered resources, lost money, and ultimately, hungry people—more than 15 million in the United States alone. Designers and innovators from coast to coast have helped find solutions to the crisis that fulfill a variety of needs, from preserving produce sent to food pantries to keeping plastic packaging out of the oceans. The Rockefeller Foundation and other IDEO partners are leveraging powerful design techniques to pave the way for a waste-free future.