FoodPort: An Airport for Food

PrintSteven Colbert once noted, “If the human body is 98 percent water, why am I only 2 percent interested?” Colbert’s jab appropriately questions our wasteful mindset regarding our most precious resource. Our food supply can be viewed similarly: how can we so easily accept wastage levels of 30-40 percent of life-sustaining food resources?

A major problem driving excessive food waste in our industrialized food system is that retail and production operations are built around efficient, inexpensive disposal of food that is approaching a sell-by date, considered “imperfect” in appearance, size or shape, or simply overstocked. Disposal has become ingrained not only because it is relatively inexpensive, but because stakeholders have long cited the absence of a “place” to take excess food easily and without fear of liability.

What if such a destination existed? Imagine a site with the ability to handle and efficiently process all types of excess food, in multiple ways. A place that offers a regional population the opportunity to manage leftover food responsibly, with economic incentives to broadly encourage the behavior change. A food hub to help eliminate food waste.

Enter FoodPort.

Still in the design and planning stage, FoodPort is based on the premise that communities, including businesses, farms, and restaurants, waste food because there is nowhere to take it in order to save it. FoodPort helps to solve this problem by creating a destination where food at risk or on the brink of wastage is checked, sorted, processed, and/or dispatched to a new destination that consumes it or re-uses it in a productive way for overall community and environmental benefit.

FoodPort operates in much the same way as modern airports that succeed at dealing with very complex issues every day due to the value placed on their cargo – passengers travelling by air. Since food is essential to life, it should warrant a similar valuation, which forms the fundamental basis of FoodPort.

Airports are much more than distribution centers and we can learn some key principles from how these systems function. Safety is their critical success factor as they are entrusted with protecting human lives. They build their systems and infrastructure around that core mission, resulting in extremely efficient operations that consistently achieve positive outcomes in very high volume. Modern airports are particularly good at processing valuable cargo, either passengers or freight, safely and efficiently over millions of transactions each day, and it is from this model that FoodPort gains its foundation as a concept.

Valuation Drives Modernization

Consider the development of the modern air travel system. In the early years of commercialization, airlines and airports struggled with the logistical complexities of transporting luggage, ensuring safety, and meeting timetables. Fast forward a few decades. Airports are now well-oiled machines that enable safe transport for millions of passengers every day. Increasingly, they have become shopping and food meccas to further enhance the flying experience and compete for customers. Passengers are valuable cargo at all steps in the travel process.

When the concept of the valued passenger is applied to excess food, we begin to explore new ways to optimize its use, and we strive to waste far less. With a FoodPort destination available, the value of excess food immediately increases because there is an economic alternative to disposal, and one that transforms a social and environmental burden into a benefit. In this way, excess food is converted into a bankable currency because the means to process it now becomes constant and predictable.

FoodPort monetizes excess food by allowing for a currency of trade around it. Strategies to incentivize its adoption include commercial “buy and sell” arrangements for bulk quantities of produce; tax breaks from state governments for food making its way to food recovery organizations; carbon credits for food entering the facility; and a revenue stream from FoodPort outputs (reprocessed food items, animal feed products, etc.) to make each facility operationally self-sustainable.

An Airport for Food

FoodPort turns the task of accepting and processing surplus food in large volume into a measurable and repeatable process, covering all aspects of the Food Recovery Hierarchy. Reusable food moves through the facility, while non-reusable food is diverted to a separate area for digestion or composting streams.

FoodPort includes:

  • An arrivals hall for initial inspection, sortation/routing, weighing, and bar-coding
  • Efficient, mechanized internal movement of food items
  • Refrigeration and freezer storage capability
  • Kitchen facilities for reprocessing food into other food products (with extended shelf life)
  • Innovation space for product development/culinary partnerships
  • Processing capability for animal feed
  • Processing capability for industrial uses
  • Processing capability for energy usage (to power part of the facility or other digesters)
  • Distribution capability to composters
  • A departure hall for bar-coded distribution of food products

Each facility also provides the opportunity to spawn innovative projects and research with culinary experts and scientists, such as the development of new food items, flavor combinations, dehydrating techniques for shelf life extension, and edible packaging.

Partnerships and Structure

Initial development of the FoodPort pilot project requires a unique partnership between government, industry, educational institutions, charitable organizations, and NGOs. The implications of food waste reduction on social and environmental welfare offer a convincing argument for public sector support of the concept. The public sector is a critical actor as it can set targeted policies to encourage broad participation. A FoodPort facility provides an objective means for government-led action by building designated infrastructure for strong environmental outcomes, especially in conjunction with organics bans in landfills. It creates food streams for people, reclaims urban zones, increases stakeholder revenue, and provides employment.

FoodPort is designed for replication. The scale and size of each facility varies based on the economic and geographic context. At each site, a sophisticated cold chain management system is necessary to ensure safety, while an efficient transport network to accommodate transfers, pickups, and deliveries between stakeholders and participants is a key to accessibility.

Moving Forward

Our current levels of food wastage across the globe are neither ethical nor moral, and they certainly are not sustainable. Allowing one to two billion tons of food to perish annually while roughly 800 million global citizens go hungry is nonsensical, as are the associated environmental and economic costs. At present, we are only scratching the surface of excess food recovery in industrialized regions. Given global trends in population growth, urbanization, and pressure on scarce resources, we urgently need a remedy. Beyond upfront waste prevention, we need scalable, replicable, and actionable food recovery solutions.

Conceptually, FoodPort is a sound model. Operationally, it is more complex. Redirecting large quantities of food for alternate uses raises a number of challenges including maintaining the cold chain, providing cost effective transport, managing perishability, upholding food safety, overcoming liability fears, developing infrastructure and processing/storage space, and managing labor. It also involves the challenge of assembling and managing tri-sector partnerships that are not replicable from one facility to the next.

Given recent technological gains and the growing momentum for a more sustainable food system, a successful pilot project is the next step. FoodPort is one method in what needs to be a diversified approach to solving the solvable problem of excessive food waste. Once operational, a pilot facility can prove it is financially sustainable and demonstrate its myriad social, environmental, economic, and overall food security benefits. A more detailed paper on FoodPort can be found here.

Note:  This post was edited for inclusion at Pyxera Global’s Global Engagement Forum to be held in Washington DC in April 2017.  It is a condensed version of a presentation developed (and largely led by!) Mark Mitchell of Supercool AP, which we presented at Carrier UTC’s World Cold Chain Summit in December 2016.  

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