Economics Professor Steve Hamilton Earns Award for Innovative Food Waste Research

Economics Professor Steve Hamilton with Elsevier Logo

Cal Poly economics Professor Steve Hamilton and a colleague received an Elsevier Atlas award for their research paper on strategies to salvage and sell cosmetically flawed produce.

Hamilton and Timothy Richards of Arizona State University in their research titled “Food waste in the sharing economy”analyzed ways in which “sharing economy” businesses similar to Uber and Airbnb can reduce the 40 percent of edible but “ugly” produce that goes to waste in the United States. The paper was published earlier this year in Food Policy, a multidisciplinary journal featuring original research.

The answer is commercial peer-to-peer mututalization systems that directly connect buyers and sellers. And in the same way that Uber connects drivers to riders or Airbnb connects hosts to visitors, similar businesses are connecting growers to consumers, putting “ugly” produce on the market.

The focus of their research is an app called Imperfect Produce. It allows growers to list food that fails the eye test — misshapen potatoes, curved carrots and discolored apples — and users who undeterred by the appearance to purchase the listed items at a 30 to 50 percent discount. The bottom line is customers save money, growers make money, and edible food avoids the landfill.

“It’s a two-sided platform, so the goal is mutual benefit,” said Hamilton, who is recognized internationally for his research and consulting related to environmental and land-use regulation, energy and water markets, groundwater managements and antitrust. “In order for this type of business to grow, growers want to see that the buyers are there, and vice versa.”

Using four years of data from Imperfect Produce, Hamilton and Richards assessed the potential effect similar businesses might have on food waste reduction. Their findings are encouraging. The app increased its customer base from 1,000 in 2015 to 7,500 in 2017, and based on their analysis, is forcasted to keep expanding. Their models show that, peer-to-peer businesses, coupled with targeted policy changes, could become a viable method for reducing food waste at all levels of the supply chain.

The implications are far-reaching in reducing the impacts on other resources. Wasted food accounts for roughly 25 percent of U.S. freshwater use and consumes nearly 300 million barrels of oil per year.

“Food waste is a relevant issue right now,” Hamilton said. “People are realizing just how much good food we discard, not just from farms, but also households and retailers.The question becomes, you’re going to have almost 10 billion people in the world by 2050; how are you going to feed them all ethically and efficiently?”

The pair’s research paper was the top choice in March from a list of works culled from Elsevier’s 3,800 journals “that impacts people’s lives around the world.” Elsevier is a world-leading provider of information solutions for science, health and technology professionals. It and an advisory board, which includes members from the Health and Global Policy Institute and the World Wildlife Federation, awards only one paper its Atlas Award each month.

The article is the first in a three-part series funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Part two will focus on consumer waste, and part three on retailers.


For more information about Elsevier or the Atlas Awards, visit

To see the research, visit