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How Silicon Valley, Flush With Free Food, is Struggling With Waste

Bay Area tech companies are known for their perks, especially their free food. That means tons — literally — of uneaten food going wasted every week.

Food waste isn't just Silicon Valley's problem, either. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization determined that the world has 870 million hungry people. They could benefit from wasted food, which amounts to $940 billion globally every year.

According to a new study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 31 percent, or 133 billion pounds, of the 430 billion pounds of available food supply in the U.S. went uneaten in 2010. The estimated value of the food loss was $161.6 billion and equates to 141 trillion calories wasted, or 1,249 calories wasted per person, per day.

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Last year the U.S. government issued a food waste reduction goal, calling for a 50 percent cut by 2030. "Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would provide enough food for more than 25 million Americans every year, helping to sharply reduce incidences of food insecurity for millions," the USDA said.

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This goal is easier said than done, when Americans waste up to 50 percent more food than U.S. consumers did in the 1970s, according to the National Institutes of Health. Most humans are prone to dispose of leftovers without thinking twice, so it's taken years for activists to bring this issue to the table for discussion.

Creating solutions that work

San Francisco-based Food Runners is one organization working to reduce food waste and raise awareness about the problem. The all-volunteer group partners with hundreds of Bay Area companies, including Google, Twitter and Airbnb, where leftover food is picked up and delivered to those in need.

"There was a period in the late '90s when there were a whole bunch of men who didn't care about anyone else," Mary Risley, founder of Food Runners, said in an interview. "Now we have millennials with start-ups, and they do care. ... I praise the people who are working hard at their computers for 12 hours a day."

Food Runners was founded by Risley in 1987, and today volunteers pick up food from more than 500 businesses throughout San Francisco, with the donor list growing every week, Risley said. Her team delivers enough food for more than 5,000 meals a day.

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"We are overwhelmed to tell you the truth because there is so much food, and there is so much need," L'Ann Bingham, community relations representative at Food Runners, said in an interview. "It has gotten busier and busier and busier for us, and there's awareness now around the amount of food that is being wasted."

Corporations such as Panera Bread, Kroger and Darden Restaurantshave committed to donating excess food and raising awareness on the issue, and more organizations similar to Food Runners — such as Maryland-based Hungry Harvest and Chicago-based Zero Percent — have followed Risley's lead in delivering corporate leftovers to those in need.

Challenges along the way

While it might sound painless for businesses to pare food waste and donate leftovers, there are many obstacles that pose roadblocks to progress.

In a 2013 survey conducted by the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, an initiative started by the food sector's leading trade associations, more than three-quarters of respondents indicated there are barriers to donating excess food. The biggest challenges include transportation constraints, liability concerns and insufficient storage at food banks, the survey found.

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Big tech companies and smaller start-ups in San Francisco today have the unique opportunity to find innovative and cutting-edge ways to fight food waste, Risley said. This might involve reducing portion sizes, reconsidering tossing something before an expiration date and changing one's attitude about food overall.

"At Twitter, we ensure that no food is wasted," Kevin McConvey, general manager of Bon Appetit at Twitter, said in a statement. "Every day we work with Food Runners to help those in need, and on our companywide days of service, Twitter employees assemble thousands of sandwiches for Food Runners to distribute to neighborhood food programs."

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With 795 million undernourished people in the world today, that means 1 in 9 individuals don't get enough food to be considered "healthy," according to the U.N.'s World Food Programme. "Wasted food represents a missed opportunity to improve global food security."

Risley sees Food Runners reducing homelessness, supporting communities of retirees, assisting child after-care programs and continuing to partner with more tech companies in San Francisco, she said.

"I believe we are moving from an incredibly wasteful society into a sharing society, and there is nothing more important than sharing excess food," Risley said. "I want everyone to know there is no reason to discard edible food in San Francisco."