Technology is bringing to life the ability to accomplish feats that would have seemed science fiction when many of us were children — like driverless cars and virtual reality. We likely have conversations with bots without even realizing we aren’t chatting with an actual person. These are exciting and important advancements, but if those of us positioned to shape and affect the implementation of technology don’t use it to address some timeless human challenges, we ignore much of the power that has been placed at our disposal.
Hunger and malnutrition have arguably been a part of the human experience throughout our existence. But, it’s disturbing to think that in 2019 a country as prosperous and technologically advanced as the United States should have “food deserts” where people are unable to access and afford fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods — all while studies from the 1980s and 1990s were alerting us that consumption of these foods could correlate with a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, some types of cancer, type-2 diabetes and other ailments. Today, we learn more and more that food is medicine and can improve longevity. At the same time, we learn from Chicago magazine’s 2012 coverage of a Joint Center on Political and Economic Studies report that life expectancy may be lower for those living in food deserts.
For limited access to exist even as the grocery retail marketplace has never been more crowded or competitive, all while the Natural Resources Defence Council reports that nearly 40% of food in the United States is wasted, is sadly ironic. The good news is that there are technologies available right now that technology leaders can use to help develop sustainable solutions for improving food accessibility and driving better population health.
One example is the North Market in North Minneapolis, an Inmar client in one of the country’s largest food deserts. North Market will offer digital incentives to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants that will encourage — and enable — these shoppers to purchase additional fresh produce. That includes digital coupons like those used in other retailer-operated digital coupon programs.
Given the pervasive use of smartphones, including among lower-income individuals, developing programs like these could positively and significantly influence purchase behavior exhibited by these shoppers and could yield critical insight into the effectiveness of providing digital incentives directly to SNAP participants — informing future program refinements for further increasing the purchase of more nutritional foods.
We also now have the ability to analyze vast amounts of data to design newer models for the management of food that are more nimble and accurate. Beyond a moral obligation to address food deserts, there are solid business reasons for technology companies to do so. ReFED estimates that food waste costs consumer-facing businesses $57 billion per year — and costs manufacturers $2 billion. Even a fraction of the savings could be redirected to supporting stores or programs in underserved areas.
Another example is Copia, a startup based in San Fransisco, which is using technology to redirect high-quality and highly perishable food that would otherwise go to waste. Copia enables hospitality companies, corporate cafeterias, sports organizations, and others to use its Prep app to schedule donations to non-profits. The company’s website says users also have a dashboard to track their surplus trends, access actionable insights from robust data, and access automated tax deductions. They seem to be delivering results: in 2016, the company stated that in four years it has “recovered more than 830,000 pounds of food,” facilitated millions of dollars in savings and fed nearly 700,000 people.
Blockchain also has the potential to affect a more nimble supply chain in which food can be distributed and redistributed more efficiently. It holds the promise of better processes, connectivity and traceability — all of which technology companies could use to reallocate food and the dollars that currently go to waste. Blockchain and serialization could be used to play a large role in food distribution and waste reduction. As an item that is part of the blockchain ages and gets closer to an expiration date, companies could use blockchain technology to push digital promotions to known shoppers of the store with the product; the discount could gradually increase as the expiration date grows closer. Companies could create ways to allow a shopper to take the item at a significantly discounted price, for free or notify a local food bank to come to pick up the item. This would allow the retailer and manufacturer to avoid the cost of the returns process, provide a benefit to the community and have a comfort level that both parties are being good actors in the transaction.
Technology companies could also develop forecasting and inventory management technology and leverage social networks to significantly impact food waste and nutrition. Forecasting and inventory technology could obtain, assimilate and analyze real-time data in markets of all shapes and sizes, including “food deserts,” to ultimately drive artificial intelligence solutions to automatically adjust or move demand and the resulting inventory to the right location at the right time and address supply deficits. Social networks could allow us to leverage where people live, both geographically and socially; move inventory or create new ways to help those in need with less friction; and, ultimately, drive more help to the local level.
What’s taking place in North Minneapolis and through Copia illustrates the dual opportunities emerging technologies present to technology leaders to accomplish what previously seemed like science fiction — but equally important, to address basic, timeless human needs. As technology leaders, we will do the most good and achieve the most success if we do not lose sight of either.
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