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Startups Are Giving Unwanted Foods New Life

Food waste is a booming, $100 billion opportunity for businesses that see its value.

Food waste isn’t a new problem. People have been grumbling about squandered produce for years. Now entrepreneurs are starting to do something about it: Recently we’ve come across several initiatives that attack the issue in new ways.

One of those is Cerplus, a marketplace for wasted food in the Bay Area. Set up by Zoe Wong in November 2015, it matches food that farmers and wholesalers can’t sell through conventional channels with buyers like restaurants and smoothie-makers. So far, about 16,000 pounds of zucchini, broccoli, strawberries, and the like, have been transacted through the system, she says.

Cerplus is Wong’s second food waste startup. Her first, Revive Foods, took discarded fruit to make jams, jellies, and marmalades. But Wong says jam wasn’t really her passion. She wanted to have more impact and that meant delving into the mechanics of matching produce to new destinations.

“I had to make a hard decision to dissolve [Revive], sell off the inventory, and start from scratch,” she says. “I wanted to build a more impactful model for aggregating and redistributing surplus foods, rather than just taking produce to make additional value-added products.”

Farmers list batches on the site, then buyers say how much of it they want, paying for that amount directly. Cerplus then arranges delivery, passing the cost to the buyer. “We provide an outlet for [sellers] to make money off stuff they otherwise would pay people to throw out,” Wong says.

Wong was recently named an Echoing Green fellow, which comes with a $80,000-$90,000 grant plus other startup support. She plans to use the money to find new buyers and sellers and gradually build up the platform.

A recent report from a coalition of 30 businesses, government agencies, investors, and nonprofits identified $100 billion of economic opportunity in food waste. That includes finding secondary uses for food (like making smoothies) and stopping produce from reaching landfills where it produces harmful methane gas. So basically, there’s so much that can be done, and startups like Cerplus are starting to do it.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Co.Exist. He edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague and Brussels.

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