How CropMobster aims to crowdsource surplus food

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This is a guest post from Nick Papadopoulos, CEO and co-founder of CropMobster and the general manager for Bloomfield Farms in Sonoma County, Calif.

At our family's Bloomfield Farms, it's a straight-up punch in the gut to watch boxes of perfectly edible broccoli, cabbage and other veggies return unsold from a farmers market. It's frustrating to till under acres of slightly blemished (and therefore unsellable) tomatoes or kale knowing that this produce should have been sold or donated. From another angle, consider the parent or fixed-income senior struggling to put fresh veggies on the table combined with the knowledge that more than 50 percent of U.S. fruit and vegetable production is wasted.

This is the frustration that gave rise to CropMobster, an online exchange and instant alert service. The idea was simple. What if we built a website where anyone with surplus food could publish alerts online? And what if these alerts could be broadcasted via social media to reach community members, small businesses and hunger relief groups? Could something like this help? Well, seven months in, the answer for our team at CropMobster is a definitive yes.

Why the surplus on our farm?

As the NRDC and others have assessed, food loss and waste occurs for many reasons. A kale crop might "go to seed" due to unseasonably warm weather. When this occurs, we need to plow it under and replant ASAP to get back on track with production. In other situations, some of our tomatoes might be blemished or the carrots a bit contorted, rendering them in both cases unsellable. There was also a situation last year when we had 40 boxes of organic broccoli that had started to yellow just a bit due to the heat. Despite four hours on the phone trying to find a hunger relief group, we could only find a home for eight boxes. The other 32 went to the compost.

At other times, issues arise from planning and forecasting. We've had more than a few situations where we've produced a great crop -- dry farmed potatoes, for example -- only to have a hard time selling out. And when it comes to farmers markets, it's difficult to know how much to harvest, pack and sell.

How does Cropmobster work?

CropMobster provides anyone with food surplus the ability to publish online alerts that are broadcasted via email and social media to individuals, hunger relief groups and small businesses. It could be a farmer offering a deal on tomatoes, a grocer such as Bi-Rite Market posting a donation on salad, salsa and milk, or a nonprofit organization such as Marin Organic sharing a potato gleaning alert. Each week, new innovative uses for our platform are emerging. For instance, a syrup maker recently posted an alert on its organic food waste stream, in the hopes that it could become chow for a rancher's hungry pigs.

What are the results we've seen?

The CropMobster Community Exchange currently has about 4,000 participants, most in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. About 100-plus small farms and food businesses have published alerts. We've helped find a home for more than 100,000 pounds of food, not including livestock, distressed plant starts and other materials. At least $50,000 in new revenue has been put into the bank accounts of local producers, along with tax benefits associated with food donations. The vast majority (about 90 percent) of the items published on CropMobster alerts have been taken. And once those items are taken, we try as much as possible to distribute impact stories to make sure the community knows they've made a difference as a team.

What hasn't worked so well?

As significant as the successes are, it's important to look at the situations that haven't worked out so well. Here are a few examples that are informing our work to learn and innovate.

Larger offers are definitely harder to handle. In one instance early on, we had a distributor of produce publish a deal on an entire ton of over-ripe (and therefore unsellable) grapefruit. At the end of the day, while the distributor received a number of smaller inquiries, no one had interest in taking the entire load. We were asked nicely to take down the post because it was (we think) becoming a waste of their valuable time as a business.

Crowd sourcing requires a crowd. We learned this just as we'd made the decision to allow anyone in Yolo County to use CropMobster. A peach farmer posted a deal on four acres of unsold and unharvested peaches. They'd had a rough go of things in the sales department. But despite all our best efforts, we didn't have enough CropMobsters in the Yolo area to help. We were informed that while the alert generated a few good customers, CropMobster did not deliver the interest level needed to save all the peaches.

Moving things the last mile can be tough. Lastly, sometimes demand exists but there's a pick-up and delivery challenge. For example, a local olive oil producer posted two 55-gallon drums of organic olive oil. While there was a good deal of interest, no potential customers had the ability or equipment to haul and unload the olive oil. It was just too heavy.

Onward and upward

CropMobster started on one farm to solve one problem in one community. Fairly quickly, we've grown to reach 12 counties in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Based on our experience, we are absolutely certain that we can be one of the many innovations unleashed to tackle the food waste crisis around the world.

Beyond the CropMobster model or technology, there's something more important to convey, and it has to do with mindset. Don't believe for one second that the food waste crisis is intractable or unsolvable because it's not -- actually, it's transformable. We hope the story of the CropMobster community has helped illustrate this potential.

This post originally appeared at NRDC SwitchboardVegetables photo by lola1960 via Shutterstock