Sustaining

Food Waste: A 16 Billion Pound Problem

Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared on BlueTowns.com. The author has graciously allowed us to repost it here.

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I was wandering through my grocery store the other morning appreciating the colorful display of shiny, perfectly positioned produce. One of the employees was stocking a gorgeous bunch of apples, so, being your intrepid (read: “nosy”) columnist, I asked, “So, what do you guys do with all the stuff that doesn’t get sold? Do you donate it somewhere?” He paused and muttered a disgusted, “Um, sorry, we’re not allowed to.” I sensed he didn’t want to “go there” (#BossIsListening), so I moved on to the bakery section.

Here’s a fact that stunned me: grocery stores toss 16 billion pounds of food every year. According to the site, RTS.com, that waste is worth twice the money that retail stores actually take in. Beyond profitability, it’s just a damn shame that so much food goes to waste in a time of increasing food insecurity, which affects over 10% of Americans. The present war in Ukraine is also impacting food supplies worldwide; it’s sure to hit home in the U.S.

For stores who opt to trash their merch, the most common reasons given are:

-They don’t have the facilities or staff to properly monitor, store or transport leftovers.

-They don’t have the “quantities” to impact a food program in a meaningful way. Example: a couple of small trays of meat are hardly worth the logistics required.

-Fear of liability. Some stores worry they’ll be held liable if someone gets sick.

The good news is that more and more retail outlets are working to reduce their food waste footprint. For example, a new California law aims to recover 20% of edible food waste by 2025 to combat hunger. Food Finders is just one group that shows up at grocery stores daily to “rescue” and deliver still-edible food to soup kitchens and food pantries across the state.

The need for food was starkly highlighted at the height of COVID when we saw record long lines of people waiting for a box of food. But that was by no means an isolated incident. For years, Republicans have gone out of their way to cut food assistance programs. In the 2021 budget, for example, Republicans aimed to reduce the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the new name for food stamps) by 30 percent over the next ten years, which would affect millions of households. That same budget aimed to curtail access to free lunches for students in need.  Figuring out better ways to support food pantries is absolutely essential.

Experts note that donating money to your local pantry is often the best move. The reason is that they can strike deals with local stores and farmers to get more bang for that buck. Established national organizations like Second Harvest and Feeding America also have the infrastructure to coordinate at the local level. Donations to these groups can go far in combatting food waste and supporting those impacted by regular cuts to food assistance.

At the retail level, more stores are implementing better inventory technology to avoid over-ordering mistakes. Some are partnering with delivery services, offering discounts on surplus food. Trader Joe’s has made a commitment to donating 100% of its unsold food to local pantries via its Neighborhood Shares program.

On the home front, do your bit by making a meal plan (and a grocery list) and buying only what you need (of course, if that carton of mint-chocolate chip ice cream just happens to leap into your cart, you can always make it up by shipping it to me). Supporting your farmer’s market is another way to cut back on waste.

There are also grocery delivery services like Imperfect Foods or Misfits Market that ship perfectly edible, nutritious items that may just look a little funny. The upside is convenience, reducing waste, and also supporting local farmers.

-Cindy Grogan

Photo: Pixabay

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