Each year, about 40 percent of all food in the U.S. goes uneaten. That means Americans throw away $165 billion worth of food that could been used to make more than 58 billion meals, according to the National Resource Defense Council.
A team of Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences students tackled this complex problem as their project in “Engineering Problem Solving and Design Project” (ES 96), and this time came up with an answer to the always head-scratching supermarket and kitchen question: How do you know when an avocado is ripe?
The course routinely challenges students to use engineering design skills to create a solution for a real-world client. They partnered with Savormetrics, a predictive food safety startup, to develop a product that could help reduce food waste. The juniors in the course, who represent all five engineering concentrations, collaborated to design and drive the project.
After studying the supply chain, the students chose to focus on food waste at the retail level. Grocery stores and distributors are responsible for about 13 percent of all food waste, with produce comprising an outsized portion, the council reports. Overstocking is one reason so much produce is wasted in grocery stores. Consumers are drawn to abundant displays of produce, but since the appearance of that produce declines as it becomes overripe, much is discarded before it can be purchased.
“In order to prevent produce from being discarded, what we need is metrics in order to know which produce are going to ripen faster,” said project co-lead Mark Meneses ’21, an engineering sciences concentrator. “How can we use metrics to drive retailer action in reducing food loss and waste?”