The Grocery Waste Chain: What Happens To Items That Don't Sell?

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Where do all the squishy avocados go? Cheapism spoke to industry leaders in food retail and learned that close-to-expired food doesn't all end up in the trash. In fact, this nearly expired and close-to-sell-date food is being reused like never before in creative ways that keep it out of American landfills.

When food, either fresh or shelf-stable items approach those "out of code" or sell-by dates, many grocers then offer a deep-discount "manager's special" to sell it off ahead of that cutoff date, or they will donate these still-edible products to food banks.

Nightly, many supermarkets fill up with employees who work late pulling these nearly out-of-code canned foods, vegetables, bakery items, packaged meats, fresh fruits, and deli meats out of the store.

There are over 16,000 different products in an average supermarket and over 25,000 in a superstore, according to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), and retailers in the U.S. have come up with ingenious ways to upcycle this still-edible food so that waste and profit loss are mitigated and people in need can benefit.

In 2010, the FMI estimated that 60 million tons of food waste went to landfills. To combat that worrisome trend, the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA) was created in 2011 to curb the waste.

But perishable foods such as fruit, vegetables, and dairy are very tricky. They often need to be sold quickly, processed into a prepared food item, or consumed that day. These are the items that most often go to waste.

Many shelf-stable foods such as canned vegetables, boxed dinners and bags of instant mashed potatoes nearing their sell-by date are sold to salvage grocery stores. Some of these items wind up at food banks as donations, or the fresher items are recycled into prepared foods.

We contacted several large food retailers and experts to learn how they manage their food.

Walmart Looks to Eden

Walmart has made steps to address the issue of food waste/grocery stores with Eden, described as an "intelligent food system" that manages fresh groceries from farm to shelf. Eden helps eliminate food waste. Walmart's goal was to figure out the best way to keep track of food freshness from the sources to the stores. The software uses food product specifications set by the USDA, with Walmart's product standards, and created a freshness algorithm that prioritizes the flow of perishable goods.

Walmart's combined goal is to eliminate $2 billion in waste over the next five years. Already, Eden is being used in 43 distribution centers and has prevented $86 million in waste from happening.

Wins in the Windy City

But giant corporations aren't the only ones in on redistributing and salvaging the food about to be trashed. We spoke to a Chicago-based eco-blogger, Leslie Fischer, the founder of Sustainable Slumber, about her unique "boots on the ground" solution.

Fischer said: "As an eco-minded mama, I am very interested in the idea of how to prevent food waste. A few years ago in the Chicago area, I became a part of a program we called 'co-op' from grocer Trader Joe's. The Trader Joe's stores all over the Chicago area donated their nearly expired food to this organization, which distributed it to places that needed it. Homeless shelters, food banks, and other organizations in need."

She added: "The most workable solution was to be organized -- when the grocery store knew that someone would come and pick up the donations on a specific day and at a agreed-upon time, they were very interested in giving donations. The benefit for them was that it was a tax-deduction."

Chicago is one American city that has a proactive web of clever food recyclers who make sure food waste is minimized, and that discarded produce is composted to be used as fertilizer for new crops.

Doug Rauch, the former president of grocery chain Trader Joe's, has taken the problem of nearly expired foods to heart and has created a special grocery store called Daily Table in the Greater Boston area.

Daily Table is stocked with surplus and aging food sold for pennies on the dollar. Most of the stock is donated by food wholesalers and local big-store grocers because it was close to expiration and just did not sell or it is simply surplus food.

Tech Delivers Results

Others are finessing software and using technology to prevent waste in the first place. Matthew S. Hollis, the president and founder of Elytus, has partnered with major grocery stores and restaurant chains to help them audit and reduce their food waste production. He is seeing some significant success.

Elytus has developed a proprietary waste technology to monitor all types of food waste production and then develop the best ways to reduce them.

Hollis said: "The best way to handle food about to expire is to mark it down for a quick sale. Food unsold after the markdowns can be evaluated for donation to local food banks and homeless shelters. Items that can't be donated can then be evaluated to be sent to farmers for animal feed. Composting is a great next step for food that is unfit for consumption. Send the food to the landfill should always be a last resort but can be used if the above options aren't available."

New England Thriftiness

Woodstock Farmers' Market in Woodstock, Vermont, is producing premium products, many of which end up in trendy Boston and New York restaurants. They also have a very strict no-waste business practice and a smart way to handle the problem. Much of the food that is near their expiration date is donated to a local pig farm and to their employees, many of whom have farm animals. Chickens devour anything vegetable or grain, and pigs enjoy the almost expired foods from WFM's kitchen and near-expiration-date perishables.

Patrick Crowl, founder and co-owner of Woodstock said: "We take waste really seriously. In fact, when you sugar it down, we have a 'zero waste policy' -- between using pig farmers, donations to the Woodstock area food shelves, and inner transferring to our kitchen produce, meats, and seafood that is past its prime. We have virtually no waste in our operations. It's ingrained in our culture, so to us, it's not really a big deal."

Giant Steps

The grocery behemoth Giant Food is going above and beyond to ensure that the holy grail of all food banks, quality protein, is being supplied with their about-to-expire meats. The "nearly expired food and where does it go" conundrum was given great thought by the Giant Food grocery chain, as explained by director of external communications and community relations Chris Brand.

We asked him how Giant Food handles the about-to-be-expired food items. Their innovative 10-year-old program ensures soon-to-expire meats are frozen and kept frozen for safe distribution to needy families. Anyone who works with food banks knows that protein is their biggest challenge. There are plenty of donated donuts and day-old breads, but meat is a hard-to-come-by item.

Giant Food has a model that could be emulated by every major grocery chain.

Explaining the process in detail, Brand said: "We're very proud of a program called Meat the Needs that we began in 2008. We piloted this program with the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank located in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

"They serve the vulnerable families, those that are food insecure, in the mid-portion of Pennsylvania. We have 171 stores. We also operate in Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia. All stores are part of Meat the Needs.

"The food bank came to us and they said, 'Look, really what we need more than anything else is protein. We would love to get protein on the plates of our families.'

Maintaining the Cold Chain

"What we did is, we worked with the USDA to ensure that we were making the cold chain intact. What we did this morning is, all of our meat managers pulled today's meat that was going to expire today, and they pulled it and they placed it in the store's freezer.

"They take it, and they put it in boxes and they freeze it. Then what we do is, we then, on a weekly basis, the refrigerated truck that delivers perishable goods to our stores. They will say, 'Give me all of your meat donations.' Those boxes then get put back on the truck, and the truck returns to our perishable distribution center where we continue to hold the meat frozen, because we want to keep the cold chain intact.

"Now, all of our 171 stores are doing that. Guess what? On Monday, they have a huge amount of meat that they then re-palletize, and then they send back out to the food banks as part of their regular run. There's no cost to the food bank at all. We take it, we put it on pallets and we then send it out. That same truck that was going to stop by our Harrisburg store to deliver perishables, it also stops at the food bank and delivers the frozen meat to them on a weekly basis.

"This way, we do not throw that meat into the dumpster. It keeps frozen. What ends up happening is, these agencies that visit are food banks. We have a total of five that we work with. There's Central PA Food Bank, there's Philabundance, there's a Second Harvest Food Bank of Lehigh Valley, and others. They all receive weekly meat donations from us, where they know this donated meat is safe. We've kept the cold chain all the way, put it in a perishable distribution center that kept it frozen, we delivered it on a perishable distribution truck to them frozen, and then the food bank freezes it."

But what about food banks that do not have adequate freezer storage? Brand explained further: "Not every food bank has a freezer, so you have to make sure you're working with a food bank that has the capacity to continue to freeze that meat. Then when the agencies show up at the food bank to pick up their weekly allocation, they then can get that meat from us. And it's frozen, but it is fresh.

"To give you some idea of the amount of meat, in the 10 years that we have donated to the Central PA Food Bank, it's a total of 3.5 million pounds of meat that has been donated. And it's the right thing to do."

This proactive approach to food waste, creatively upcycling as prepared dishes, resources for people in need, compost for farmers or animal feed has true economic value. What was once landfill fodder making methane gas and harming the planet is now a windfall commodity.

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