Ag secretary comes to Colorado Springs looking for answers to the country’s food waste problem

Food is a just-in-time, on-demand kind of thing in the U.S. People expect it on the shelf anytime they want it, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. They expect it to look perfect – good enough to take iPhone photos of at restaurants and sending the images to friends.

That demand has created some paradoxes. About $200 billion worth of not-quite-perfect food goes to waste every year, yet 42 million Americans don’t have enough to eat. Forty percent of what farmers grow annually goes uneaten, yet 68 percent of farmers are on the verge of bankruptcy.

Charged with doing something about those contradictions, the Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue stopped by Colorado Springs on Tuesday to see if there might be an answer in local startup FoodMaven.

"FoodMaven is kind of the Uber of food waste," Perdue said after touring the company’s new warehouse on North Stone Street, near North Nevada Avenue and East Fillmore Street. "Food Maven is doing an innovative and creative idea on how to reduce food waste" that might be a good model for the USDA to follow, Perdue said. USDA might even explore a partnership with FoodMaven on a national pilot program to tap into some of that wasted food for recipients of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the heir to food stamps.

FoodMaven operates an online marketplace in Denver and Colorado Springs for surplus food that is bought from grocery stores and food distributors and sold to restaurants, institutional kitchens and commercial food preparation businesses that don’t care if it looks so perfect. Before FoodMaven created a market for that food, most of it was thrown away.

The post-harvest waste in farmers’ fields "may not be absolutely perfect but is still very healthy, nutritious and edible," Perdue points out. "FoodMaven is helping to recover that," he said, and also "helping suppliers who sometimes are not able to market their production through normal channels."

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, center in vest, poses for a picture while touring the FoodMaven facility in Colorado Springs Tuesday, May 15, 2018. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Perdue’s embrace of FoodMaven – he literally hugged CEO Patrick Bultema after a warehouse tour Tuesday – could be just the rocket fuel FoodMaven needs to meet its ambitious goal of being in every major metro service area in the country in five years.

The startup has already secured investor funding and board representation from big names like Walter Robb, former co-CEO of Whole Foods, and the Walton family, owner of the Walmart empire.

"Colorado was really our learning state, and we’re in the process now of going to other cities and states," Bultema said.

So what exactly could a food behemoth like the USDA learn from a 3-year-old startup like FoodMaven? After all, the USDA has tried massive programs to reduce food waste before.

In 2015, President Obama’s Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Stan Meiburg announced a first-ever national food waste reduction goal, calling for a 50 percent reduction by 2030.

In 2013, USDA and EPA launched the Food Waste Challenge, calling on farms, agricultural processors, food manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants, universities, schools, and local governments to join in a national effort to reduce food waste. They even began naming annual Food Waste Champions who did their part to solve the problem.

It had all the hallmarks of a massive, bureaucratic government program, one that hasn’t really done that much yet to solve the root problem.

Perdue wants to try a different approach. The Farm Bill being considered in Congress includes funding for a first-ever coordinator of food waste, according to Megan Cornish, vice president of government and industry affairs for FoodMaven.

What brought Perdue to Colorado Springs is the fact that FoodMaven is trying to solve the problem in the private sector.

"I love the entrepreneurial aspect," Perdue said. "I like, frankly, the for-profit model because there’s nothing more incentivizing than economic reality."

The USDA currently purchases a variety of food for nutrition assistance programs, including the National School Lunch Program, The Emergency Food Assistance Program, and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. If the USDA could purchase discounted food that otherwise is going to waste, the agency potentially would save billions of dollars and make their funding go farther, feeding more families.

Perdue said he thinks there may be a role for FoodMaven in teaming up the suppliers of normally wasted food and the providers of food for schools and other institutions.

"We’re looking at those things where they could provide more flexibility … FoodMaven could provide the logistics and connection between those two. "

SNAP might be another area where USDA could enlist FoodMaven’s help, especially with their new "Harvest Box" program. Under the Perdue proposal, all needy households participating in the SNAP program who are receiving $90 per month or more in benefits would receive a package of U.S.-grown and produced food, and FoodMaven may be asked to provide the food for those boxes.

"We may ask FoodMaven to be our private sector partner to pilot that project," Perdue said, "if Congress doesn’t allow the USDA to pilot it." FoodMaven may be able to do the groundwork for the program that the USDA would then try to scale nationwide, Perdue said.

Bultema said FoodMaven already is partnering with the federal government on four specific initiatives, so he thinks it’s just a matter of time before such a public-private partnership begins to bear fruit.

"We’re just in the beginning stages of exploring" a partnership with FoodMaven, Perdue said, but it was clear he liked what he saw in Colorado Springs.

"I think it fulfills our USDA motto," he added "which is ‘Do right, feed everyone.’"

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