ReFED Board member Emily Ma is a Project Lead at X, Alphabet's moonshot factory, which develops breakthrough technologies designed to solve some of the world's biggest problems. She leads some of X's sustainability initiatives with a focus on food distribution, waste reduction and supply chain challenges.
We connected with Emily for a Q&A session to discuss her passion for the sector and the role human-centered design can play in fostering a more sustainable and inclusive food system:
How did you become passionate about food waste reduction as an issue?
The food system is a global behemoth, and much of what happens in the supply chain is completely invisible to consumers. To get a perfect potato to your plate, a lot of energy, water, labor, and other resources were used, and a lot of other less than perfect potatoes were left behind. Many years ago, out of curiosity, I started participating in Google’s "culinary internships." For a few hours at the break of dawn before my day job started, I worked alongside our kitchen staff to prepare thousands of meals for the day. My jobs included peeling 100 pounds of carrots and mixing five gallons of salad dressing from scratch! In that process, I observed our chefs and staff managing procurement, overproduction, and trim waste in foodservice at an enormous scale. Doing so confirmed for me how little I knew about my lunch. Google has since significantly reduced its pre-consumer and post-consumer food waste just by committing to measuring it. We can continue doing even better.
What role do you hope ReFED can play in expanding food waste reduction efforts across the food system?
I believe that ReFED’s biggest future opportunity is to bridge the gap between awareness and action. ReFED has done a fantastic job significantly increasing public awareness of the food waste problem and potential solutions; in fact, it was ReFED white papers that motivated me to dig deeper into this space three years ago.
Since then, ReFED has established itself as a trusted data-driven non-profit organization that also effectively convenes key stakeholders across the food industry. The upcoming ReFED Insights Engine and Roadmap to 2030 highlight the breadth and depth of ReFED’s analytical capabilities. These analyses and insights, combined with ReFED’s commitment to fostering creative financial solutions, will motivate action across the food industry.
What role do you think human-centered design and technology can play in creating a more inclusive food system?
The majority of individuals working in the food system are doing the day-to-day work of growing our food, processing our food, transporting our food, and cooking our food. I learned very early on that these incredible individuals are keen to improve but do not necessarily have the energy at the end of a twelve-hour shift or the risk-taking capacity to implement novel solutions. To put this in perspective, a local farmer once told me that while a computer programmer can recompile his code 400 times a day, as a farmer, he only has 40 seasons in his entire life to experiment with!
I believe that technology can enable our solutions to be human-centered. New solutions should definitely not add an extra hour of work on top of a chef's twelve-hour shift. We have the technology today with sensors and machine learning to automate the data gathering processing and more that we need to get data driven insights without adding extra work onto already busy people.
I also continue to believe in Google’s original mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. This applies to the food system at large. Data and information about food is not universally accessible and useful. It means that a lot of committed and persistent food operators, namely smaller businesses, are at a disadvantage to larger or better funded food organizations. Better access to information and to markets will lift the boat for everyone, enabling a more inclusive and sustainable food system.
What's your #1 tip for reducing food waste in your own kitchen?
Keep all your vegetable trim waste in a container in the freezer for stock! This includes onion skins, carrot tops, broccoli stems, garlic ends, and leek tops. Once a month, I throw everything in a stock pot or Instant Pot and cook it down. Add chicken or beef bones if you want a meat based stock. There’s no reason to buy this in a carton or can at the store when you already have everything you need!