food for thought

What’s Left on the Table

By | March 14, 2018
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Dr. Brian Roe wants you to bring your phone to dinner. The Van Buren Professor of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics has teamed up with one of his doctoral candidates to create a new smartphone app that will use photographs to monitor and measure food wasted in each step of the consumption process. The need for research like this is urgent and timely. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), food waste in the United States is estimated at between 30 and 40% of the food supply, an estimated loss of $162 billion and 133 billion pounds of food.

Agriculture is the family business. Brian grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and his father and brother still run the farm, which now grows commercial soy and corn. During his 20 years at The Ohio State University (OSU) he has studied the impact of reformatting food labels and the impact of claims made by supplement manufacturers. His interdisciplinary work on food waste brings together issues related to business, sustainability, hunger, efficiency and municipal waste.

The app was initially developed as part of a doctoral student’s dissertation research. Danyi Qi was interested in studying food waste but needed more and higher quality data than was available. She and Brian, her advisor, identified a group at Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, which had developed an app to monitor food intake. They were successfully measuring gross caloric intake within 4% accuracy. Danyi and Brian saw an opportunity to use similar technology to track food waste. They reached out to their colleagues at Louisiana State who were willing to collaborate. They applied to OSU for a seed grant, then to the USDA for a grant to create and test the app, which is now in Beta testing and will go into pilot testing in March.

“We developed an app called SmartIntake® to measure food intake based on images of peoples’ food selection and plate waste,” says Corby Martin, professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center. “With this app, food intake was determined by subtracting plate waste from food selection. The app accurately estimated plate waste, which led to our partnership with Dr. Roe and OSU to build upon our technology and apply it to measuring food waste. We believe that this is a novel method for people to easily know how much food they are wasting.”

App users upload smartphone pictures to the app, and they are stored on one of Louisiana State’s servers. People rate each photo and measure the amount of food wasted. Users can also add photos of shopping receipts and the waste accumulated during cooking preparation to measure the amount of groceries that go unused, as well as what they discard when they clean out their refrigerators and cabinets. During the pilot testing phase, researchers will validate the raters’ accuracy; first in a lab setting and then 40 test subjects will use the app at home for four weeks.

Once validated, an app that can track and measure food waste has exciting implications for homes, restaurants and schools. Brian says that by “accumulating data on food that consistently goes to waste, professional chefs and educational dining services operators can adjust ingredients and portions to better meet consumer needs, reducing waste and controlling costs in the process.”

Partnering with Zia Ahmed, senior director of Ohio State’s Dining Services, they are working on a pilot program to photograph students’ trays as they are returned and measure how much and what kinds of food are thrown away.

Brian and Danyi envision a future where households can self-rate their food and even their energy and water waste. Quantitative data on dollars and cents lost may create more of a sense of urgency towards driving sustainable behavior among organizations and individuals.

For more information about Brian’s research and Ohio State’s efforts to alleviate food insecurity, please visit the Food Innovation Center’s website at

Mark your calendar for a special event in collaboration with Gateway Film Center for their kick-off to GFC's Columbus Documentary Week on April 26 with Wasted! The Story of Food Waste. See our event calendar for details.

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