IBM works with developers to limit food waste through technology

Did you know that in the United States, it’s estimated that up to 40 percent of the food supply goes uneaten. That would be equivalent to leaving a grocery store with five bags, and then dropping two in the parking lot and leaving them there…every trip! This is an eye-opening statistic when you consider that 23.5 million Americans lack access to fresh produce, either due to high prices or because there are no grocery stores in their neighborhood. The problem is a complex one — involving not just the grocers, but government and the entire chain from farmers to consumers. Moreover, the increased demand for fresh products that are available through ever more convenient channels, seems to be in direct opposition to practices that could mitigate waste.

The quest for waste reduction is ambitious, but uniquely positioned to benefit from technology. The reason for this is what lies at the heart of the problem: data. In many cases today, data such as a product’s age, origin, condition, and journey lies with different parties or isn’t being tracked at all. Without visibility into this information, it’s hard for any partner in the chain to optimize how they sell, fulfill, or plan with waste reduction in mind.

So, the question becomes How do we tackle this information complexity and human expectation in the journey to be more responsible stewards of the environment and our society? That’s where IBM comes in.

IBM partnered with AngelHack to host a virtual hackathon where developers were asked to create a solution that would dramatically reduce waste through grocery and food chains. One month and more than 100 registered teams later, we’re proud to announce that the winner of IBM’s inaugural Food Waste Developer Challenge is FreShip!

FreShip is a software and hardware platform that minimizes food waste through constant monitoring along with the integration of an e-commerce platform that allows food that would otherwise be wasted to be resold somewhere else. FreShip uses Arduino and NB-IoT technologies to outfit food shipping containers with the resources they need to monitor the freshness of the food within. Smart bidding contracts are deployed on a Hyperledger Fabric blockchain connected via IBM IoT to a network of smart sensors located on the shipping containers.

Using IBM Watson machine learning, FreShip analyzes photos of food to determine how fresh it is, and provides options for what to do with food instead of letting it go to waste. For example, if a supermarket orders bananas and due to shipping delays, the bananas are too ripe for them to sell, instead of them being thrown away, FreShip would allow them to redirect this shipment of bananas to a manufacturer that could use them. This minimizes loss for the supermarket and reduces food waste at the same time, which benefits all parties. By 2022, FreShip estimates that it can reduce the amount of food waste by up to 70%.

“Food and consumer products industries are so dynamic and unique that their challenges, like Food Waste, can get very complex,” according to Gina Claxton, General Manager of the Distribution Market for US IBM Global Markets. “IBM has a long history of using our technology and partnerships to tackle the world’s biggest challenges, and we believe we can have real impact for our clients and their customers around food waste. By leveraging open technologies like IBM Cloud, blockchain, IoT, and others, the virtual hackathon is an example of how we can help clients find innovative solutions to these problems, whether it comes from within their own company or not.”

We want to extend our appreciation to everyone who participated in the Food Waste Developer Challenge, and our sincerest congratulations to the FreShip team. IBM is committed to solving business and society’s biggest challenges by bringing people and technology together to drive innovation. In this challenge, we were excited to see how developers leveraged open-source technology for good. We look forward to creating more opportunities for open innovation in the future, and are very thankful for everyone who continues to put their time and effort into making positive change in the world.

Find out more about how we’re using technology to tackle food waste at the IBM Food Trust page.

Matthew Herr