Food insecurity and waste are enormous global challenges. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than 820 million people worldwide suffer from hunger, while over one-third of the world’s food is wasted per year.

No country is immune to it. An estimated 11.1% of U.S. households were food insecure in 2018, according to a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) study, including 4.3% who were very food insecure – meaning at least one member of the household had to reduce or change his or her eating patterns because of lack of money or other resources to obtain food. And while over 40 million Americans struggle to put food on the table, the USDA estimates 30% to 40% of the food supply is wasted each year.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity in the United States has increased significantly. The COVID Impact Survey found that 34.5% of households with a child 18 and under were food insecure as of late April 2020 and that 22.7% of households reported not having sufficient resources to buy more food when the food that they purchased didn’t last.

Many business leaders around the world, including two of YPO’s Global Impact Award regional finalists, are taking a lead role in helping to rethink food insecurity, end hunger and reduce food waste.

Opening in food deserts

Communities that lack affordable and nutritious food are particularly at risk for higher levels of food insecurity. If low-income residents living in a food desert, or urban neighborhood previously without access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other whole foods, can only purchase food at higher prices, they may be more likely to have insufficient food for active, healthy living.

Food deserts affect 25 million Americans in 6,500 urban and rural areas. Lack of access to affordable healthy food contributes to high levels of obesity and other diet-related conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. Fourth-generation grocer and YPO member Jeffrey Brown, the CEO and President of Brown’s Super Storesis working to change that. He opened his first grocery store in the community of Southwest Philadelphia, and now, six out of his 12 stores are food desert stores. Brown’s ranks in the top 50 U.S. small grocery chains and reports annual sales of approximately USD500 million.

Addressing the underlying issues

Because food insecurity intersects with many other challenges, including poverty, unemployment, lack of access and food waste, Brown saw that there were many more opportunities to improve outcomes beyond the shelves of his stores. The company’s overall goal, he says, is to address the excessive level of poverty and inequity in the Philly area.

Many of the stores operated by Brown’s offer pharmacies and walk-in health clinics, which are Federally Qualified Healthcare Centers and make care more affordable for the community. Customers receive free services from an in-house specialist who helps customers get pre-approved for entitlements, and on-site nutritionists and social workers to ensure their long-term health and well-being. 

In addition, Brown hires within the communities he serves. After learning that a large percentage of the community members near his first store had been incarcerated and no one would hire them, he not only hired six ex-offenders but has since established the Uplift Workforce Solutions program, which creates second-chance employment opportunities for ‘formerly incarcerated citizens’ in and around Philadelphia. Today, his company employs 2,400, of whom more than 600 are ex-offenders.

“We really look at the system holistically and use our business and nonprofit to innovate, advocate, organize and provide assistance to address the challenges,” says Brown.

We believe efforts to improve food security shouldn’t be a competing advantage, but an effort the entire food industry works to address. ”
— Jeffrey Brown, CEO & President Brown’s Super Stores. share twitter

To help bridge the gap between food insecurity and food waste, Uplift started the Philly Food Rescue, which partners with businesses to better manage food waste and connect businesses with excess food to institutions that help feed the most needy people. To date, more than 560,000 pounds of food have been salvaged and more than 470,000 meals distributed locally. 

“We have been introducing Philly Food Rescue to all our major competitors,” says Brown. “We believe efforts to improve food security shouldn’t be a competing advantage, but an effort the entire food industry works to address.”

Reducing food waste

Most of the reasons for food waste are avoidable. In developed nations, solutions include donating unused foods like Brown is doing in the United States, and the purchase of imperfect and surplus produce and other products for redistribution.

“Being in the food industry means we are behind the scenes and see food being rejected for many stupid reasons, from tiny dents in cans and a minor printing error on the packaging to unreasonable expiry date issues,” says Nichol Ng, CEO and Managing Director of six companies, including FoodXervices Inc., ranked among Singapore’s top foodservice companies. “Singapore imports more than 90% of its food and throws out 30% of it, yet 10% of our population is ‘food insecure.’ It made me question if there was a better way to do this.”

In 2012, she co-founded The Food Bank Singapore to address food waste, redistribute excess food to the needy and end all forms of food insecurity in the country by 2025. To do that, it has first set out to define what food insecurity means in a country like Singapore, which has one of the highest GDPs per capita and is considered one of the world’s most food secure nations. What they have found so far is it is a much larger issue: 98% of those interviewed had faced some kind of food insecurity.

Innovating a way forward

“We’ve taken it upon ourselves to look at innovation and technology to help us map out the problem that we have,” says Ng. “We have started on a journey of digitizing and introducing virtual food banking.”

To me that’s what impact is all about, taking that small step in the right direction that can make a bigger ripple in the world that you’re in. ”
— Nichol Ng, Co-founder The Food Bank Singapore share twitter

Imagine a Google food map that highlights and connects potential donors and beneficiaries. An organization can swipe right or left on what food donors have, and then a company like Uber with transportation facilities would be able to help redistribute the food in real time and more cost effectively. Last year, The Food Bank Singapore redistributed 802 tons of food to 360 charity organizations.

The Food Bank Singapore is at the forefront of using technology to reinvent what a food bank looks like and rethink distribution through food vending machines. Persons in need can use a card with 50 food credits every month to get food at one of six vending machines. Food Bank Singapore plans to roll out its first cooked food distribution vending machine, offering untouched, cooked food it salvages from places like the Sands Expo & Convention Centre in Singapore.

“In our part of the world, everybody likes to eat rice and noodles and all the staples, which should be consumed hot,” says Ng. “We wanted to salvage all the excess food that we can get from the supply chain – the fresh, the perishables, the dry groceries, the cooked food – and put them into a very nice bento set, blast freeze it and then dispense the food 24/7 using the vending machine.”

If successful, The Food Bank of Singapore plans to add variety to food offerings at approximately 100 machines across the island. The machines are leased, so the organization hopes to attract corporate sponsors to adopt machines on an annual basis to reduce operating expenses and encourage more businesses to be a part of the solution.

“All corporates need to realize that corporate social responsibility will be the only way moving forward,” says Ng. “To me that’s what impact is all about, taking that small step in the right direction that can make a bigger ripple in the world that you’re in.”

By Melissa Fleming | View full bio