“Gleaners” can help solve hunger, food waste and nutritional deficiencies, if volunteers managed efficiently – Deishin Lee

MIT Sloan Visiting Asst. Prof. Deishin Lee

From the Griffin Report, July, 2017

Food banks have benefited greatly from the incredible generosity of farmers and volunteers who have taken the time and made the effort of gathering produce left in the fields after a main harvest.

Indeed, the practice of “gleaning” which dates back to ancient times, has been growing in recent years as more efforts and associations are organized to meet the simultaneous need of feeding food-insecure persons at food banks and reducing food waste.

Modern-day gleaning in America is a noble endeavor, but is fraught with operational challenges that introduce inefficiencies into the process.

My colleagues Baris Ata, Xiaoli Fan, Miguel Gomez and Erkut Sonmez and I study the root cause of these process inefficiencies and how to address them in a series of papers, based on our work with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier in New York and the Boston Area Gleaners.

We found that a key part of the problem – and ultimately its solution – is tied to how volunteer staff members are utilized in the gleaning process. It’s not necessarily about a lack of volunteers. In its simplest terms, it’s about when and where those volunteers are deployed for gleaning operations.

But before we get into our recent findings on staffing and other key issues, let’s first step back to look at the larger picture of the gleaning activity itself and the challenges it faces.

It’s been estimated that about 6 percent of planted acres go unharvested in the U.S. To be clear: these are edible crops fit for human consumption that will be left in the fields to be plowed under unless someone goes back to harvest, or glean, them.

Simultaneously, it’s been estimated that about 14 percent of U.S. households faces food insecurity. Food insecurity is not just about hunger. It’s also about people not getting the healthy, micronutrient-rich foods that we all need.

So a gleaning operation is ultimately addressing three societal problems: hunger, food waste, and nutritional deficiencies.

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These first-year MBAs are trying to solve America’s food waste problem — Ricky Ashenfelter

MIT Sloan’s Sustainability Certificate program, which is designed for MBA students who want to dig deep with the goal of becoming innovators in the field, has inspired the creation of new ventures. Ricky Ashenfelter and Emily Malina—both current students—approach the food industry from an entrepreneurial standpoint. Their new venture, Spoiler Alert, is a web-based marketplace for the real-time exchange of local supply and demand information for surplus, expiring, and spoiled food. Ricky blogged about his new company at Bloomberg Businessweek..

Jason Jay, Director, Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan.

MIT Sloan MBA Candidate Ricky Ashenfelter

Ricky Ashenfelter, MBA ’15

From Bloomberg Businessweek

Americans throw out almost a third of their food annually—the equivalent of more than $160 billion—while almost 15 percent of U.S. households struggle to put enough food on the table. Add to this the continuing depletion of our limited natural resources for fuel and fertilizer, and what you have is a business opportunity to redirect landfill-bound waste to people in need and to businesses that can do something productive with it.

My classmate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, Emily Malina, and I are trying to do just that with a mobile application and enterprise software platform built on the principles of the sharing economy. Our business venture, Spoiler Alert, is an online marketplace for the real-time exchange of local supply-and-demand information for excess, expiring, and spoiled food.

The food waste problem is ripe for innovation. Here in Massachusetts, a commercial food waste ban will go into effect this summer. And last fall, the former president of Trader Joe’s, Doug Rauch, announced the opening of a Boston-based store that will prepare and sell donated, excess food to cost-conscious consumers.

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