It’s nice to be reminded that the next generation is taking its future on this planet very seriously, as was evident at WWF headquarters in Washington, D.C. on April 15, 2016. Several months earlier, WWF and Accenture joined forces to work on the Accenture Innovation Challenge, an annual competition that engages teams of undergraduate students to develop solutions to real world issues.
This year, we tackled food waste. Our question to students was as follows:
“How can WWF influence grocery retailers and food service kitchens to develop strategies that prevent food waste throughout their operations and supply chains?”
The question was timely and relevant. I had just helped launch WWF’s food waste program and was spending a lot of time digging into available research.
In February 2016, we gave 1,234 students across 206 teams access to everything I knew about food waste and 24 hours to come up with a solution. Teams competed for the top spot at over 60 universities across the country.
Accenture helped us select the top 16 solutions, which were then vetted by a panel of WWF and Accenture employees. Over the course of three weeks, we narrowed it down to the final four teams. The finalists flew to Washington, D.C., and presented their ideas to a panel of judges.
Most students admitted they had no idea food waste was such a huge problem before the challenge, and few thought about food waste’s direct connections to environmental issues.
The winning solution by the University of Chicago combined a strong strategy balanced with an impressive presentation. Of note, each team incorporated technology and social media as part of their solution.
Despite their being freshmen and sophomores, each presentation could have easily passed for MBA-level work. Equally impressive is that when one looks at the top four, they represent real world action that is desperately needed in some form. Let’s take a closer look at each team:
• Winner - University of Chicago:
This proposal stressed the importance having an alliance, convened with the help of WWF and other NGO’s to set clear and measurable source reduction targets. They called it TargetZero. Their aim was to prevent 40 billion pounds of food waste with an estimated savings of $60 billion dollars in U.S. food spend. This is achieved by setting industry reduction targets and creating an open-source platform, which they called BullsEye, for benchmarking and reporting measured results. The U.S. food industry has done a fine job at sharing best practices, but we’ve yet to see action in setting business-level source reduction targets and measurement strategies. The University of Chicago students recognized the convening strength of WWF and outlined a clear approach for moving forward.
• Runner Up – Georgia Institute of Technology:
This approach was to create a certification system that rewards grocery stores willing to standardize waste reduction efforts. Grocery chains typically operate with various levels of “shrink” or food loss based on how they display food. Food spoils when it sits on display. The certification would incentivize moving to a “zero-shrink” operating model and expanding edible food donations.
• University of Columbia:
This team stressed the importance of developing software-as-a-service to create secondary reseller markets for food. This is going to be incredibly important if we are to fully utilize the billions of pounds of edible food wasted each year just because of cosmetic standards or over-ordering (surplus). The challenge is not “if” we can get edible food to everyone, it’s “how” we distribute food safely in a manner that is cost-neutral or better. This will require taking advantage of enhanced tax credits for donation, but also creating secondary markets to sell food as much food as possible, likely at discounted rates to attract sales.
• University of Notre Dame:
This team addressed the elephant in the room; the fact that the burden of ending food waste lies with changing consumer behavior and attitudes. Their idea was to create an app that incentivizes reporting plate waste and surplus portion sizes at restaurants and food service businesses. The effect is two-fold. Obtaining more data on how much people waste can help restaurants adjust excess portion sizes. It can also help the business reduce food costs by serving “just enough”.
In just six weeks, hundreds of inspiring students synthesized data on a complex global issue and were able to conclude that several solutions are imperative for moving forward. Today, food waste is an invisible problem. If you don’t see it, there’s no recognition we have to change. That’s why we must measure food waste in an open and transparent way. Once we know what we’re wasting, we can then work to prevent waste by using technology and creative, low-tech, labor-saving solutions.
The obligation is on everyone, from consumers to retailers to farmers. Who’s in?