Picture pallets of vegetables lingering in a grocery store’s back room. Turnover in the produce section is slow, and there is no room on the shelves. The vegetables are still edible, but will most likely be sent to a landfill, according to MIT Sloan MBA students Emily Malina and Ricky Ashenfelter, both members of the class of 2015.
Now there’s an app for that. Spoiler Alert, which was founded by Malina and Ashenfelter last year, will address food waste issues by helping organizations and companies manage their surplus food and organic waste by connecting them with organizations that can use them.
With the Spoiler Alert app, the store with the surplus vegetables can post what is available, and nearby food rescue organizations can respond and pick up the food in time to provide the still-fresh items to people who could use them.
“It is designed to seamlessly connect all aspects of the food supply chain,” Ashenfelter says. The app is available through iTunes, and businesses can sign up on the company’s website. The team is currently working on a Web platform as well and is building a version that will be compatible with Android devices.
Eight Massachusetts-based food organizations, ranging from retailers, manufacturers, distributors, and food-recovery non-profits, including the Greater Boston Food Bank, took part in a recent pilot program, which ran from January through March this past year. According to Malina and Ashenfelter, about 8,000 pounds of food were posted for donation.
The Bon Appétit Management Co., which supplies food to five residential dining halls at MIT, also took part in the pilot. Claire Cummings, who is the waste specialist at Bon Appétit, said the pilot was an achievement.
“Spoiler Alert has brought flexibility and reliability to our food recovery program at MIT. The app has the potential to enable chefs and catering managers to easily communicate what is available for donation and when it’s available, which addresses some of the most difficult logistical barriers to food recovery,” Cummings says.
Now that the pilot is complete, Ashenfelter and Malina plan to release the app beyond Boston and start raising capital. Once they graduate in June, both plan to work on Spoiler Alert in Cambridge.
Prior to management school, both Ashenfelter and Malina worked for Deloitte Consulting, but they didn’t meet until an MIT Sloan admitted students’ event in 2013. They discovered many shared interests and both pursued course offerings from the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan and the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Track. During their first year at MIT Sloan, they explored issues of food waste in classes taught by Professor Ed Roberts and Senior Lecturer Bill Aulet, and leveraged many of the resources at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.
Ashenfelter said the MIT ecosystem has been “phenomenal” for the pair. Jason Jay, director of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan, has been an early and vocal supporter of the startup, which has placed in several national pitch competitions. Malina says an entrepreneurial marketing class taught by Aulet, who is also the Trust Center managing director, and Brian Halligan, MBA ’05 and co-founder of HubSpot, and Paul English, co-founder of Kayak, also provided inspiration. MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service has also been a great resource in developing their business.
Waste not, want not
The need for an app like Spoiler Alert seemed obvious to Malina and Ashenfelter. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that 14.5 percent of American households experienced “food insecurity” in 2012, meaning they could not always be sure where they would get their next meal.
At the same time, Americans throw out a third of their food annually, said Ashenfelter and Malina. Grocery stores and other businesses are often unsure of how to donate extra food, and many don’t realize that liability protections are in place via the Good Samaritan Law, according to Ashenfelter.
Malina described Spoiler Alert as technology that creates new connections and enhances existing relationships — all in an effort to improve efficiency and reduce the amount of food going to waste. “Users can quickly post what they have, notify our network of recipients, and confirm discounted food sales and food donations, all in real-time.” Malina says.
The app is free for organizations that wish to donate food. Spoiler Alert will eventually feature a subscription-based model for other users.
If food does spoil, it can potentially be converted into fertilizer or other value-add products. On October 1, 2014, a commercial food waste disposal ban went into effect in Massachusetts, meaning any entity that has at least one ton of organic waste per week will have to donate or re-purpose the useable food, according to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The remaining waste would have to be shipped to the likes of an anaerobic digestion facility, a composting operation, or an animal feed operation.
Malina and Ashenfelter are excited about this new development, and plan to integrate it into Spoiler Alert’s offerings. “There are a lot of different uses for food, depending on its quality and geography,” Ashenfelter says. “When we think about the food recovery hierarchy, feeding people is at the top, and as you move down, it’s animals, industrial uses, and compost. But the end goal is to keep as much of it out of the landfill as possible.”