The Grocer’s Dilemma
Fighting Food Waste at the Retail Level
The Truth About Food Waste
Each day, Americans throw out 150,000 pounds of food. Globally, 1.3 billion tons, or roughly one third of the food produced gets wasted. 20% of dairy and meat, 35% of seafood, and 45% of fruit and vegetable yields get thrown out before they’re consumed. These products end up in landfills, where a lack of oxygen prevents proper decomposition and instead, results in the generation of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gasses. At the center of it all are producers and grocery stores, who throw away millions of tons of food, because of minor cosmetic defects or arbitrary “sell by” labels. The documentary Just Eat It illustrates this reality. In the film, a couple lives off of “expired” and thrown out food for six months. Rather than living off scraps, the couple finds themselves entrenched in mountains of food that grocery stores, distributers, and producers simply thrown away. 20% of dairy and meat, 35% of seafood, and 45% of fruit and vegetable yields get thrown out before they’re consumed. The couple, in fact, actually end up gaining weight. The documentary highlights the food waste epidemic and places retailers at the very center.
As a former employee at Holiday Market, a grocery store in metro Detroit, I’ve seen my fair share of wasted food. In one instance, when I was an employee, I gathered every expired bottle and can of soda in the entire store, roughly three carts worth, and set them aside for the contents to be thrown away and the bottles to be recycled. In another instance, garbage cans full of produce was left to be thrown out, as they were going to expire soon. Danny, part owner and an elderly Italian immigrant, drew a blackened banana from the pile and ate the mostly liquified fruit in one slurp in protest.
Food retailers and food producers surely waste a lot, but the reality is far more complex. More and more, retailers are scrambling to cut down on the amount of waste that is created, not only for environmental and societal reasons, but economic reasons as well. According to the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations, food losses and waste accounts for $680 billion in lost revenues across developed countries. In order to find out about how grocery stores limit their food waste, I contacted Holiday Market and met with Tommy Violante, one of the owners.
Starting Within Stores
First, Tommy was forthcoming in acknowledging that waste is a huge problem in the grocery industry. “Nobody likes to waste food. It means that we can’t sell it and people can’t eat it”, Tommy remarked. Just Eat It, and documentaries like it, imply that food is wasted, because most of the time, its more profitable to throw out close dated or cosmetically imperfect food than to salvage it. This largely isn’t true. In order to save as many products as they can, Holiday Market and the grocery industry at large has implemented creative ways to solve the problem. Each department has different ways to tackle the problem. “Nobody likes to waste food. It means that we can’t sell it and people can’t eat it”The produce department is unique, because unlike many prepackaged foods and dairy products, its’ products don’t have set expired dates. That being said, when produce becomes too old to sell, it gets sent around to the departments of the store that make and sell prepared food. Perfectly ripe tomatoes that would only last a few days in a customer’s pantry could appear in a catered dish or in tomato soup in the store’s hot bar. Holiday Market’s robust catering business utilizes vast quantities of close-dated produce as well. What isn’t sold and doesn’t make it to the catering or premade foods department will likely be thrown away. Although its hard to exactly pinpoint how much produce does get tossed, Tommy said they throw away “more than I’d like”. Holiday is far from the only grocery store to implement these policies. In fact, during a phone call to a local Kroger in Bloomington, Indiana, I found that many close-dated produce items are utilized at the store’s hot bar. Most grocery stores are keen on salvaging as much of food as they can, before they have to donate it or throw it away.
According to the Environmental Protection agency, only 5% of wasted food is composted. This fact was deeply troubling to me. Wouldn’t it be just as easy to throw food in a composting bin rather than garbage bin? Again, the reality is more complicated. While speaking to Tommy, I brought this up and the simple answer is lack of time and resources. “We haven’t considered doing that [composting], because we don’t have any use for all of that soil. And it wouldn’t be worth it for most farmers to drive into Royal Oak [an urban area] to buy expensive compost”, Tommy explained. While composting might be feasible in some grocery stores, the fact is that there simply isn’t enough space around Holiday’s urban store to keep heaping piles of decomposing fruits and vegetables around. Additionally, there aren’t enough farms within close proximity to where transporting the goods would be beneficial. This seems to be a common theme among grocery stores across the country – an unfortunate reality of living the way we do. All hope is not lost, though. According to Albertsons, a regional supermarket chain in Santa Barbra, California, 95% of their food waste is reused, recycled, or composted. Produce might get donated to food pantry’s under rare circumstances, but due to Holiday Market’s large catering and pre-prepared food business, not a lot of Holiday produce makes it to local food banks.
Food Pantries and Grocery Stores – A Symbiotic Relationship
At grocery stores across the country, dozens of graveyard shift workers methodically comb through each aisle and pull out everything that is approaching, at, or past its sell by date, and replaced by fresher food. Much of this food is then donated to food banks, or increasingly, sold to outlet grocery stores. According to Community Food Share, a food bank in Colorado, 91% of their food comes through donations, and of that, the overwhelming majority comes “food rescue”. Food rescue, as they define it, happens when “retail grocers, farmers, producers, distributors, and foodservice operators donate food that is not profitable to sell, close-dated, overstock, seasonal, or cosmetically damaged”. Although Community Food Share makes it seem like they themselves are rescuing food that would otherwise be thrown out, the reality is that both the grocer and the food bank have a deeply intertwined relationship and rely heavily on each other. While Holiday Market was unable to give me exact figures, other grocery stores keep more consistent figures. Trader Joes, for example, donated 70 million pounds of food across nearly 500 stores in 2017, or roughly 140,000 pounds of food per store. Trader Joes, for example, donated 70 million pounds of food across nearly 500 stores in 2017 Trader Joes even goes as far as to hire donation coordinators at every one of their locations! Again, the notion that food retailers are ignorant to their problem of food waste simply is not true.
Government regulation has made it far easier for grocery stores to donate their food, as well. One instance is the passage of 1996 Bill Emerson Food Donation Act. In short, the bill ensures that stores that donate food to nonprofits in good faith are protected against lawsuits from people who might’ve gotten sick from said food. A big reason why food retailers were hesitant to donate to food banks was because they were afraid of lawsuits. The passage of this bill encouraged food donation and is a huge reason why stores like Trader Joes are able to have such robust donation infrastructure established. Additionally, food donations are tax deductible, making donation worth the logistic struggles that many grocery stores face.
Why Old Food is in Vogue
Besides donation to nonprofit food banks, the private sector has its own way of tackling the problem of food waste – the salvage grocery store. According to Simplemost, an online lifestyle magazine, salvage groceries are grocery stores are like “outlet stores for groceries”, meaning that the store sells heavily discounted groceries. Mostly, these are products that are near or past their expiration dates, items that are dented in their packaging, overstock or out of season items, discontinued items, or store closeouts. And while one might assume that these stores only sell frozen foods, this is not the case. Many salvage grocery stores have the same offerings as traditional supermarkets. Where traditional grocers wouldn’t dare sell an item that is too close to its expiration date, salvage grocers depend on doing so. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, “best by” and “sell by” dates are not indicative of a food’s safety. Rather, those dates are set by the manufacturer to give consumers a better idea as to the food’s quality. Traditional grocers wouldn’t dare sell an item that is too close to its expiration date, salvage grocers depend on doing so In fact, the only type of food that requires dates on food is baby food. Although the salvage grocery stores are becoming more and more popular each year, the stores themselves have been around for decades.
United Grocery Outlet, the largest close out grocery store in the eastern United States has been around since 1974. I reached out to the Hazard, Kentucky branch of UGO to learn more about their company and spoke with the general manager, Amanda. Curious about where their success came from, Amanda tells me that they’ve noticed the recession of 2008 was impetus for the surge of business, but even in our current strong global economy, people choose to shop at these kinds of businesses. Sure, when economies are more uncertain, people are quicker to shop at salvage grocery stores, but largely, United Grocery Outlet is unaffected by shifting economic conditions. The goods that appear in these stores, of course, aren’t donated by other full-priced grocery stores. Instead, they buy their goods directly from producers, grocers, and distributers – “wherever the buyer can get the best deal”, Amanda explained.
While I assumed that food safety would be a major concern for these types of businesses, Amanda told me this isn’t the case. In fact, she couldn’t recall the last time a customer complained to her. Salvage grocery stores are beneficial to everybody. They help producers by creating a market for previously “unsellable” goods, they help consumers by providing safe and inexpensive food to people who might not have been able to afford it in the past, and they help the environment, by limiting the amount of food and plastic that goes completely unused and ends up in landfills. Just Eat it implies that free market economies are largely to blame for the food-waste crisis in developed countries, however, the existence of these types of stores is proof that this isn’t the case.
There is no question that food waste is a big problem, and a lot of the reason why is because of the industrial food production and retail. But one must look at the full picture and notice the ways in which these parties have made strides in preventing it. While we’re still nowhere near where we should be in terms of food waste, each day, grocers are getting more creative in doing their part to mitigate this issue.
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“Key Facts on Food Loss and Waste You Should Know!” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, www.fao.org/save-food/resources/keyfindings/en/.
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