Data in the Food System

The Refresh Food + Tech: From Soil to Supper report surveys some of the ways that data is transforming the U.S. food system. From farmers monitoring their cows with HerdDogg’s DoggTags to Agrisource Data using analytics to track food safety and quality throughout the supply chain, the implications for data in the food system are significant and far-reaching. But the report only scratches the surface of what’s being done with data in the US food system. Innovations in food and tech are constantly emerging and offering new possibilities for the future of food.  

Speaking with Food Tank, Hannah Dehradunwala, co-founder of New York City nonprofit Transfernation, details how her organization uses a mobile app and data sharing to create a system that “connects established systems and food distributors across the city in real time.” In doing so, it has managed to create an on-demand food rescue service that redistributes 1.5-2.7 metric tons of food per week, enough food to reallocate hundreds of meals a day to dinner tables instead of landfills.

Data can also play an important role in helping individuals access healthier food options. Wholesome Wave, led by Refresh Working Group (RWG) member Michel Nischan, provides support in collecting patient purchasing data for organizations who want to implement a Produce Prescriptions program, which allows doctors and nutritionists to prescribe and subsidize patient purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables. Using that data, Produce Prescriptions has successfully encouraged 69 percent of program participants to eat more produce.

Another RWG member, Manik Suri, CEO and Co-Founder of CoInspect developed an app to help businesses transition from pen and paper checklists and reports by allowing restaurants, suppliers, and distributors to gather and report data to comply with government and independent health and safety standards. Data is critical to ensuring a safe food supply and improving public health. According to the CDC, “Roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.” Writing on The World Bank’s website, Colin Finan from DineSafe.org and IWasPoisoned.com discusses the role crowdsourcing and data sharing can play in addressing outbreaks of food poisoning. In addition to the public health benefits that data sharing can provide, Finan argues that being more proactive is good for businesses; in his view, transparency helps them ensure “a better more sustainable business with safer outcomes for their customers and better financial outcomes for their shareholders.”

As more data-driven tools are employed to reduce hunger, waste, and improve public health, the stakes for data protection are also increasing. Safely and effectively handling data is absolutely key for innovators working in the food system and beyond. In both the public and private sectors, creating baseline rules for data protection has become critical in the digital age. With Congressional hearings coming up next week, both policymakers and the public are also trying to understand how to leverage all this data without compromising its security. With their wide range of perspectives, the members of the RWG are poised to contribute to that ongoing dialogue.

Diana Huang
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