Solutions to the Food Waste Fiasco

Different frames of Robin Greenfield posing with food, with
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We’ve got a Food Waste Fiasco on our hands, United States of America, and it’s time we solve it. But before diving into the solution, you must have a grasp on the depth of the problem. Here’s my TEDx talk that will make things pretty clear in under 20 minutes:

To sum up how large the problem of food waste in the USA is:

We waste 165 billion dollars worth of food per year. That’s more than the budgets for our national parks, public libraries, federal prisons, veteran’s health care, the FBI, and the FDA combined.
We waste as much as half of all the food we produce, which means we produce enough food to feed almost two entire US American populations. All while 50 million US Americans (1 in 7) are food insecure. The face of food insecurity is not laziness. It’s children who are too hungry to concentrate at school, elders at home with rumbling tummies, and families that are working two jobs just to make ends meet.

Food waste is one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. When we waste food we also waste all of the land, water, fossil fuels, and labor that was used to grow it. Food waste is also a leading cause of rainforest deforestation, depletion of fish in the ocean, and biodiversity loss.

In my years of research, I’ve found that where there is food, there is wasted food. From the farm to the factories, to the warehouses and the grocery stores, to the restaurants and the households, food is being wasted everywhere. We need to end food waste in all of these areas, but my personal focus is the fiasco that lies in the hands of the grocery stores.

Grocery stores are responsible for an astonishing amount of food waste, and it doesn’t start or stop at just the food that comes in and out of their doors. It’s their entire supply chain. Here, I lay out what grocery stores can do to stop wasting food in order of what is resulting in the greatest amount of food waste, down to the least.

Measure food waste. This is an important first step, because if the stores do not measure their waste, then they will never really know how much they are wasting. Disposal is convenient, so it is very easy to overlook the problem and underestimate waste. Grocery stores must measure their food waste both at the grocery store level by auditing what is going in the dumpster, as well as throughout their entire supply chain.

Practice transparency. Once measuring waste, grocery stores need to make that information publicly available in a full and transparent manner. In doing so, grocery stores, waste reduction organizations, and the public will be able to work together to tackle waste. It is very hard to solve a problem when the information is locked behind closed doors. An independent third party should audit this data, and audits should not be a one-time thing.

Take responsibility for their entire supply chain from farm to fork. Most grocery stores do not consider waste at the farm or manufacturer their own responsibility. But the truth is that it is often their standards that are creating waste at this level in the supply chain in the first place. Since it’s not their own dumpster, it is quite easy to ignore. They must take responsibility for their entire supply chain.

Reduce their cosmetic standards. The single largest thing that can be done for grocery stores to take responsibility for their supply chain from farm to fork is to reduce their cosmetic standards. Billions of pounds of delicious and nutritious food is wasted purely because of shape, color, or size. Bananas with the wrong curvature, potatoes that are too big, oranges with slight blemishes, cauliflower with a slight hue of purple or yellow, these are just a few examples of why billions of pounds of perfectly good food is being wasted at farms.

Adopt ethical practices with farms. Besides ridiculous cosmetic standards, grocery stores also cancel orders last minute and leave the farmers to deal with the truckloads of food that the stores had committed to buying. Some stores have exclusive contracts with the farmers, so the farmers aren’t allowed to sell the food to anyone else, even when the grocery store cancels. Because of the unfair practices of grocery stores, many farmers are living in uncertainty and fear. Farms also overproduce to make sure they have enough so they don’t lose a grocery store contract. Many farmers produce for just one or two stores, so losing a contract could mean losing their farm overnight. This system has created farms and farmers that are servants to the supermarkets.

These unethical policies and practices result in waste via farmers leaving portions of crops in the field to rot, composting, plowing the crop under, or sending it to be used as livestock feed. Whole-crop purchasing, guaranteed purchases of proportions of crops, and helping farmers access secondary markets are all policies that can adopted by grocery stores to reduce waste throughout their supply chain. Consumers can encourage grocery stores to stock ugly produce by using #DemandUgly on social media or talking to the grocery store manager in person.

A simple solution would be to stock produce without segregating based on shape, color, or size. This would mean crooked carrots or oversize apples for example. However, any food that doesn’t have an “ideal look” can be used in ways so the consumer never sees what the food looks like. This includes making juice out of the fruits that are “misshapen” and frozen french fries out of the potatoes that are “too big” for example.

Note: Some stores have introduced wonky fruit and vegetable lines and this is great. However the US American public must look deeper to be certain that green washing tactics are not taking place. It’s possible for a store to receive great publicity and instill trust in the public by creating a limited, short-term product line that is minuscule in comparison to taking more meaningful action to reduce waste in their supply chains.

Most of the above is about preventing waste and excess before it ever gets to the grocery store shelves. This is where a much larger volume of waste occurs than at the actual grocery store. However, as you’ve seen through my pictures and through the TEDx talk, a mind blowing amount of food is also going to waste at the grocery store level. Here’s what can be done at the store:

Selling food at a discount that’s nearing its “sell by date”. It’s important to know that these dates are not created or enforced by a government agency. They are created by the manufacturers and are more about peak freshness than actual food safety. The USDA and the FDA even explain on their websites the length of time products are still good for after these dates and that food CAN be sold after these dates. Suggested sell by dates are a suggestion and “best by” is not “bad after.”

Put great effort into not ordering excess. Properly training the staff that orders the food is an absolute must to prevent ordering excess. In general, handling inventory better is a key step. This comes down to prioritizing the reduction of food waste.

Using produce in the deli that is past prime. This includes making juice out of the overripe fruit and soup out of the veggies that are past prime. By doing this, they can drastically reduce produce waste within the store.
After reducing waste within the store, the next step is what can be done with the food that can’t be used within the store.

Donate food to nonprofits. Although my campaigns focuses greatly on #DonateNotDump, the fact is that this is actually in the middle, or even towards the bottom of the food waste hierarchy, not the top.

Grocery stores are protected from liability by The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. This act was passed in 1996, and effectively waives stores of any liability should someone get sick from the food they donate. A University of Arkansas School of Law study shows that not a single lawsuit has ever been made against a grocery store, restaurant, or caterer that has donated food to a nonprofit. A large percentage of stores cite fear of liability as their reason for not donating food, but they truly are protected and history shows that the fear is unnecessary. Thousands of food rescue programs exist across the United States and many of them will actually pick up excess food.

It is worth noting that donating the food to nonprofits can also provide great financial benefits. Nationwide, there are tax deductions for donations to nonprofits. Through the federal tax credit 170(e)3 stores can receive up to half of the appreciated value back. Here’s an example scenario of how this works: a grocery store buys $100 of product and intends to sell it for $500; they would have made $400. If they decide that they aren’t going to sell it and donate it instead of throwing it away they could receive up to $200 back ($200 is 50% of $400). To learn more about this, you can visit this link within the IRS website. Grocery stores also pay dumpster fees, typically on a per weight or per volume basis. This means grocery stores are literally paying to dispose wasted food. Donating the food instead of putting it into the dumpsters could drastically reduce their disposal fees. Lastly, the publicity that stores could receive for donating food can actually help bring business to the store. If the store operates purely on a profit bottom line, it will be harder to rationalize donating the food. However, if they operate on a triple bottom line (people, planet, and profit), then donating food to nonprofits really is a no-brainer.

Feed excess to animals. If food is no longer fit for human consumption, then it should be fed to animals. Raising pigs on food waste is one of the most environmentally sound ways to produce meat. Learn more about this solution at The Pig Idea. Not only does feeding wasted food to livestock prevent food from going to the landfill, but it prevents the need to use virgin resources to grow food for the animals. Food waste can be fed to pigs, cows, horses, chickens, and rabbits, just to name a few animals.

Compost or create energy. Composting and creating energy are two great things to do with food waste. However, this truly is a last resort and should only be done with food that is not fit for human or animal consumption. Composting or creating energy with wasted food does not mean that food is not being wasted. It still is being wasted. Composting recuperates a small fraction of all the energy that it took to grow the food in the first place. None of the land, water, or fossil fuels that were used to grow the food is recovered. Not to mention all of the chemicals sprayed on non-organic food and the harm to biodiversity. But with slop and inedible scraps, it is imperative that we create compost that can be used to grow more food, reduce the need for fertilizer, or create energy via anaerobic digestion or excess heat from composting.

Food waste could be nearly completely abolished by doing all of the above and there would be no food going to the landfills.

If a grocery store truly cares about its community, humanity, and the earth, they can and must start making some of these changes immediately. Some changes can be started tomorrow. Others will need to be taken in steps and will take a little time to be fully implemented. Any and all actions that are applicable must be taken as soon as possible. There is no good reason nor time to wait to implement them. Starting these practices only to give them up a month or a year later will not solve these problems; stores must commit to long-term changes.
As an individual, there is also a lot that you can do to end The Food Waste Fiasco.

Put pressure on grocery stores to make changes. We can’t blame the grocery stores for the problem entirely. After all, some of this is just them trying to meet consumer demand. So it takes us, the conscious consumers, to demand something else. We must demand grocery stores stop the waste. To reduce food waste at the farm level, we must put pressure on stores to relax their cosmetic standards and stock ugly produce. You can do this with #DemandUgly on social media.

Ask grocery stores to #DonateNotDump. You can tweet or Facebook them, email them, or go in and talk to your manager. Be informed and use this solutions guide as a tool. One conversation could result in hundreds of people being fed week after week. Imagine how good it would feel to know you made that happen.

Don’t waste food. Before you go telling anybody else not to waste food, make sure you take a look at your own actions. Does your garbage can have any food in it? Lead by example and make sure you’re not wasting any food.

Grow your own food. When you grow food yourself, you’ll feel a deeper connection to it and you’ll probably be really excited to eat it, not waste it. Seeing it go from seed or seedling to a vine full of juicy tomatoes or a bunch of greens will get you excited to eat them and share them with your neighbors.

Support your local farmers. Instead of giving your money to these wasteful stores, support the people who aren’t wasting food. Typically small local farmers waste a lot less food because they appreciate food for what it is, a life giving substance. Often, big chains see food as dollars and cents on a spreadsheet. They’re so far from the farm, it’s very easy to be disconnected from the food that comes to them in trucks.

Compost or feed wasted food to animals. Again, this is a last resort and should only be done with food that is no longer fit for human consumption. You could raise backyard chickens for eggs, or pigs on food waste for meat.
I believe that we are at a tipping point for ending food waste, and with citizen action we can solve this. The excitement inside me tells me that my generation will drastically reduce food waste in our time. Please join me in ending food waste and hunger by leading by example, and sharing The Food Waste Fiasco with the grocery stores in your city.

For a deeper look into food waste, detailed information on the problem and solutions, how to get involved, food rescue programs, dumpster diving, and more go to Robin’s Food Waste Activism and Dumpster Diving Resource Page.

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