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At 2 p.m. every Sunday, Marisela Godinez, owner of El Mesón Tequilería, a Mexican restaurant in Austin, Texas, filled a 15-gallon jar plus half of another with the leftovers from the buffet they prepared for brunch at the restaurant. “We threw away a lot of food,” he says.
A few months ago, Godinez signed up for an app called Too Good To Go. Now 10 customers collect “poop bags” of his scraps for $5.99 each and he sends far fewer scraps to landfill or compost.
Apps have proliferated across the United States that connect customers to leftover food businesses. The concept is simple: restaurants and grocery stores throw away massive amounts of food every day. Instead of throwing it away, apps like Too Good To Go and Flashfood are helping companies sell it at a discounted price. They claim that companies and shoppers are helping the environment because otherwise food would become food waste, which is a major contributor to climate change.
The apps, which monetize a portion of each sale, are advertised in language that sounds more like a call to arms than a shopping list. “Fights food waste,” reads the Flashfood description. The Too Good To Go promotion calls users “food waste fighters”.
Similar apps are popping up all over the world. In Singapore, Treatsure started selling leftovers from hotel buffets and has recently partnered with supermarkets. In Hong Kong, Phenix sells take-out in bakeries, cafes and restaurants. Tabete follows a similar model in Japan.
Food production is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for between a quarter and a third of global emissions. Every step of the process—growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, packaging, storing, and preparing food—releases carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases that warm the planet. When food is wasted, all of those emissions are wasted too.
Once unused food ends up in landfills, it breaks down and releases more methane.
“We waste 35 to 40 percent of the food we produce,” said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. Much of it is perfectly edible, but it can be expensive for businesses to store, transport, donate, or sell it. “Insofar as all of these applications make things easier for businesses, I think they’re very positive,” he said.
Launched in Toronto half a decade ago, Flashfood now works with more than 1,400 supermarkets across the US and Canada (although that’s still only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of grocery stores combined), including big chains like Meijer, Giant and SpartanNash. It recently hit the New York market at a Stop & Shop in the Bronx. As groceries approach their sell-by dates, retailers can scan products into the Flashfood system instead of throwing them away to sell them at half price. Customers can check out items through the app, purchase them, and pick them up at a local store. Flashfood retains 25 percent.
In Hammond, Indiana, Jerry Wash, a retired railroad agent, says he regularly checks what’s available at his local Meijer. “We wake up in the morning and, you know, most people check their social media,” he said. “We review flash food.”
Wash claimed that he and his wife, Jody, did not shop in the usual clearance sections of grocery stores, where, he said, the groceries for sale were “battered” and “rotten.” Lately, he added, they’re planning meals based on what’s available on the app.
Josh Domingues, the company’s founder and CEO, acknowledged that he replicated the clearance shelf on people’s phones, but said presentation was key. “These foods aren’t separated in the back corner, which almost makes you feel guilty when you have to choose,” he said. Instead, at the front of grocery stores are fridges marked in blue with signs urging people to help fight food waste.
Too Good To Go tried to turn leftover shopping into a game. In the United States, customers can search restaurants and shops in 12 cities and then reserve “crashbags,” which typically cost $4 to $6 and contain groceries that would have cost about three times the original price. Bags can be picked up at set times. Too Good To Go costs $1.79 per bag and charges members an annual fee of $89.
Austin-based tax advisor Jennifer Rexrode learned about the app in May. “One of my friends posted a picture of the food she got from a local steakhouse with Too Good To Go, they got some ribs,” she said. “And I thought I want lots of ribs! So I signed up.”
Rexrode said the element of surprise makes it feel like trick-or-treating on Halloween. Among the 76 bags he’s ordered, highlights include seven wet tacos and a chicken sandwich he made in his air fryer ($3.99), two dozen extra-large sausage kolaches he shared with his mechanic (May 5, 2009). $.99) and seven different orders of cupcakes, cinnamon buns, cookies, croissants, tarts, and falafel ($3.99 to $4.99 each) that he picked up back-to-back on his birthday.
“Customers are really enjoying it,” said Jamie Crummie, co-founder of the company. Some users post videos of their purchases on TikTok, and there’s a Reddit community with more than 10,000 people sharing photos of their bags.
Others share their surprises on Facebook. Kate Mytron of Portland, Oregon, posted a photo of four slices of pizza with the caption, “Not the best pizza, but worth $5.” In New York, Joel St. Germain posted photos of a bag of rotten produce. “There was nothing edible in there,” he said. “Everything went 100 percent in the trash.”
St. Germain said he recently cut back on using the app, not because of the occasional bad order, but because he’s gained weight from eating too much pizza and pastries.
Too Good To Go is most popular in Europe, where it operates in 15 countries and has partnerships with international chains such as Starbucks, Pret A Manger and Costa Coffee. In the United States, the company said it is continuing to expand and is currently testing partnerships with Safeway and Panera.
Several food waste experts have been optimistic that such apps could help limit the amount of food sent to landfills, and while charities often divert unwanted food from restaurants and grocery stores to food banks and soup kitchens, “there’s room for all of these.” Types of solutions coexist,” said Lorenzo Macaluso, director of growth at the Center for EcoTechnology, a nonprofit group focused on the issue. “Unfortunately, there is too much food waste.”
Macaluso pointed out that these applications are geared towards selling small quantities of perishable products, while food banks are typically willing to process much larger donations. “So these types of apps fill a very interesting and unique niche,” he said.
Rexrode, the Austin tax analyst who uses Too Good To Go, has been reflecting on the climate impact of her actions. The app contains details of how many kilos of carbon dioxide he has “saved” based on the number of surprise bags he has bought, which in his case is 190 kilos.
However, he said that number may not be entirely accurate. “You don’t know how much I contributed by picking up the food,” Rexrode said. “I’m going by car!”