When I was 12 years old, I had a brief and desultory career as a babysitter. I counted the minutes until the kids went to bed and I could make good on their parents’ offer: Eat whatever snacks you like. I have no memory of the money I made or the families I worked for, but I do remember the thrill of opening other people’s kitchen cabinets to find a wealth of surprise treats.
Surprise snacks are one of life’s little delights — and little motivators. Now, in a bid to reduce food waste, an app is using the appeal of cheap, unexpected food to motivate consumers to buy items restaurants would otherwise throw away. Too Good To Go, which launched in 2015 in Denmark and has since raised more than $45 million in funding, allows users to purchase “surprise bags” of food otherwise marked for the trash from restaurants and other local businesses. Every purchase, usually between $3 to $6, is described as “rescuing”: Customers get the chance to ensure “good food gets eaten,” while businesses get the chance to recoup sunk costs and find new customers. The app’s marketing notes that 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are due to food waste, and claims to have saved “164 million meals” in its six years of operation (a representative for the company says the app defines a meal as one surprise bag). In an era of inflation and higher food costs, the app also touts the fact that it helps customers to buy food at a third of the cost of retail price.
In Los Angeles, where the service launched last month to much fanfare, it’s difficult to put a whole meal together from Too Good To Go. The app is currently populated mostly with coffee shops, doughnut shops, bakeries, panaderias, bagel shops, and the occasional pizzeria (a representative says the company is actively recruiting new stores, which they do over the phone or email in order “to have great conversations with businesses about the issue of food waste.”) As a meal, a doughnut or a croissant doesn’t usually cut it, but as food waste, baked goods are in desperate need of “rescuing,” since they don’t last more than a day, and many bakeries err on the side of maintaining full cases even if demand doesn’t keep up. Right now in Los Angeles, the app functions largely as a virtuous excuse to eat pastries. I was more than up for the challenge.
For my first pickup, I selected El Mana’s Bakery in Koreatown, which specializes in Salvadoran pan dulce, which I had never tried before. After circling the block too many times trying to find parking, I threw on my flashers and ducked inside right before the end of my pickup window at 7 p.m. (Most of the bags have a set time window when you can pick up, usually at the close of the day: afternoons for bakeries or late at night for pizzerias or the few participating restaurants.) The bakery sells to wholesalers as well, and two men inside were already loading a delivery truck. When I presented my app screen, a mildly bewildered employee called his boss and asked what pastries to give me, filling a bag while wandering the store on the phone. My haul was huge — cookies, sweet and plain croissant-like cachitos, and slices of a jam-filled cake called semita pacha; the pacha was especially satisfying, dense with a filling of sweet jam that might have been fig, like an especially decadent Newton.
Next, I tried picking up some actual food waste. A vegan frozen yogurt place — Yoga-Urt, they have three locations — offered a 5-pound bag of almond pulp, which consists of the leftover bit of almonds used for making milk. It’s basically a damp almond flour, and there are lots of recipes to use it up, ranging from promising (brownie balls) to horrifying (almond pulp hummus). To keep things from veering into wellness territory, I also stopped by Angelino’s Donuts nearby in Echo Park. For a third of the regular price, I received a full dozen doughnuts packed into a box, including a big apple fritter.
It was around this time that “rescuing food waste” started to feel more complicated. This abundance of cheap pastries hammered home how much food waste was occurring daily in Los Angeles, a fact I know intellectually but felt very deeply when seeing how little a dent my hauls were making: When I left El Mana’s, plenty of pan dulce still filled the shelves; the doughnut shop’s pastry case was half-full at 4 p.m., hours after the morning doughnut rush. The other issue was that the food waste had been not so much eliminated as transferred from the businesses to me, and it was hard not to waste it myself. My household is two people, and we were racking up a lot of pastries. I put the Salvadoran margarita cookies and some of the leftover cachito dulces out front for the kids leaving our local elementary school and took my second of two semita pachas to a friend’s house. After sampling a couple of doughnuts from our haul from Angelino’s, I texted my neighbors and asked if their teenagers would like the rest (the answer is always yes). I used a cup of the almond pulp to make some vaguely chocolatey date-and-coconut brownie bites, which were satisfying, but there is still a nearly full bag of pulp in my freezer.
My account in Too Good To Go says I’ve “saved” six bags of food and 33 pounds of CO2e, but that’s only if I didn’t throw out any of the food I picked up. I have to confess: I did. The surprise bag from DK’s Donuts, a delightful, instagrammy doughnut shop in Santa Monica, came with six doughnuts stale from the night before, crammed into a bag that smudged the camera-ready frosting, of which we ate one and a half and didn’t have the heart to offer to anyone else. A pickup of leftover bread from Santa Monica cheese shop Lady & Larder fueled a great cheese plate and some sandwiches, though this required that I spend real money on pasteurized sheep’s milk cheese and honey mustard pickles. But by day three the sliced bread had molded (I should have put some in the freezer).
Instead of making me feel like I was doing good for the world, Too Good To Go was making me feel terrible about both the state of food waste and myself. Maybe that is helpful. It’s a crime we don’t have a good system for selling all this extra food cheaply or giving it away. But my spree of rescuing surprise bags did not feel like it was that solution. To assuage this guilt and discomfort, I clicked on the app’s “give to charity” option, hoping to be able to give away some of this surplus food to people who needed it more than me. But you can’t gift surprise bags from the app — instead, you can give money to a local food waste charity. A representative for the app says this charity option is available because, as a part of its overall mission, it “makes it a priority to work hand-in-hand with partners fighting food insecurity and hunger throughout the U.S.”
The app has two uses as far as I can tell; one sensible, one a bit more frivolous. If you were having a big group of people over and wanted to give them treats on the cheap, using it to hit up a doughnut shop or panaderia could be a great choice, and might help save a few doughnuts from the dumpster. Obviously, this move would be much more useful for people with bigger families or households. On TikTok, a lot of people in their 20s unbox their Too Good To Go orders with glee, and if I still lived with four other roommates, this app would be a great way of bribing them not to be quite so mad I left my dirty dishes in the sink again.
The other more frivolous use is as an avenue of discovery, or even indulgence. The utter unpredictability of what I would get in my surprise bags made using Too Good To Go alternately delightful and disappointing, but it was often fun. In other words, these bags are a classic intermittent reward, the same kind that keeps rats pushing levers and us scrolling social media. Using the app in this manner might help businesses recoup some food costs, but at least for me, it didn’t stop the actual food waste. I don’t buy two loaves of bread or a dozen doughnuts for two people on purpose, because I would probably end up wasting them. My zeal for acquiring the same amount of food on the cheap resembled the general logic of sales: Stores put them on not to clear out merchandise but because they entice consumers to buy things they otherwise don’t really want or need. Nothing wrong with day-old pastries on sale. But Too Good To Go’s lofty marketing — the company says their ambition is “to contribute in every way we can to building the global food waste movement” — doesn’t align with my experience.
That said, deals are hard to resist, and I feel for those abandoned doughnuts. I’m sure I’ll keep popping the app open around Los Angeles hoping for an especially good score, even if I can’t kid myself that I’m doing anything more than gambling on pastries and hoping for an especially good surprise.
Correction, May 19, 2023: A previous version of this article misstated that Too Good to Go launched in the U.K.