Two hot topics in the food world grew even hotter last year, converging as companies across the globe sought better solutions to stem the tide of food waste and get more food to the people who need it.
In the U.S., Americans toss more than 40 million tons of food waste on the landfills every year, with much of it coming from supermarkets and restaurants that throw away food that’s still good but past its sell-by date. Somewhere between 25% and 40% of the food produced in the United States will never be eaten, according to data from the Food Waste Reduction Alliance.
Meanwhile, 50 million Americans, including about 16 million children, suffer from food insecurity, according to the Agriculture Department. Children go hungry as tons of edible food gets sent to the dump — it’s a problem supermarket retailers and restaurant chains are taking aim at in greater numbers.
Harvesting the power of restaurants
Composting may play a key role for restaurants in the future, but in many markets eateries have focused more of their efforts on sharing their extra food with the hungry.
Orlando-based Darden Restaurants operates the Darden Harvest program, which connects the company’s chain restaurants — Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52, The Capital Grille, Eddie V’s and Yard House — with food banks in their communities. Since launching 10 years ago, the eateries have donated more than 67 million pounds of fresh fish, meat, baked potatoes, soups, vegetables and other surplus food, says Communications Director Rich Jeffers.
“[Before launching Harvest] we had a number of restaurants that were donating food on their own and we saw an opportunity to operationalize these ‘random acts of kindness’ across all our restaurants and really make an impact,” he says.
Each one of the company’s more than 2,100 restaurants has a Harvest partner agency that picks up the food weekly and distributes it in the community. This fiscal year, the eateries donated 10.9 million pounds of food, enough to provide three meals a day for a year for 3,250 families of four, Jeffers says.
The Harvest program is a key component in Darden’s larger commitment to move toward an end goal of sending zero waste to the landfill. The company will experiment with composting in select Orlando restaurants this year, and it operates a used cooking oil program that has recycled more than 13 million pounds of oil since its 2010 launch.
Clearing the “sell by” confusion
Other restaurant chains and supermarkets including Wegman’s, Publix, Kroger and Safeway are working on programs to cut waste and get surplus food to those in need, and a report issued last year by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic may help make it a bit easier.
The report found that more than 90% of Americans throw out food before it goes bad, largely because of confusion over “best by,” “sell by” and “use by” labels. The labels vary from state to state, store to store and brand to brand, with most designed to denote peak freshness and not food safety — food kept at proper temperatures can remain safe and nutritious far past those dates, while food not stored properly can go bad well before the date on the package, the report points out. Meanwhile, many if not most consumers see the dates as a deadline, after which the food must be tossed.
The authors call for a standardized system that makes “sell by” dates invisible to the consumer and clearly differentiates between dates meant to denote peak freshness and those meant to ensure food safety. Resources like FMI’s Foodkeeper Guide and USDA’s Kitchen Companion Safe Food Handbook consumers solid information on looking past the dates to determine whether food is safe to eat.
Seeing the beauty in ugly fruits and veggies
Misshapen carrots, blemished apples and otherwise less-than-perfect pieces of produce often languish in the produce bins until they pass their prime without finding a buyer. They’re just as tasty and nutritious as their shiny, pretty peers, a fact retailers including Tesco in the U.K. are working to get across to shoppers used to judging their fruit and veg on looks alone, as The Independent reported last month.
The retailer called for consumer education when it comes to convincing shoppers that the less-attractive options are just as good and Tesco has created a place on its website dubbed “Love Food, Hate Waste” that’s dedicated to helping consumers cut back on their own food waste. Tips range from creating weekly food planners to avoid overbuying to hints on freezing food so it keeps longer.
Also last year, the retailer dropped several produce promotions, including multi-pack deals on bagged salads, after determining that 68% of bagged greens are tossed out, 35% of them from the home after purchase.
A new last chance for older food
In the U.S., supermarkets are also looking for ways to cut waste while also helping to feed hungry low-income consumers. Former Trader Joe’s President Doug Rauch made a media splash last fall when he announced plans to open a store that will cater to low-income and budget-conscious consumers in Dorchester, Mass., with lower-priced products, including prepared foods, that are technically past their “sell-by” dates but still tasty and safe to eat.
Plans for the store, dubbed Daily Table, call for it to be a hybrid between a grocery store and restaurant, Rauch told NPR and other media outlets in September. “This is, to a large degree, either excess, overstocked, wholesome food that’s thrown out by grocers, etc. … at the end of the day because of the sell-by dates. Or [it's from] growers that have product that’s nutritionally sound, perfectly good, but cosmetically blemished or not quite up for prime time. [So we] bring this food down into a retail environment where it can become affordable nutrition,” he said.
Rauch says in the NPR interview that his idea is one solution among many that will be needed to solve the dual problems of food waste and hunger. Mainstream supermarket companies and restaurant chains are also working on solving the same problems, many by partnering with the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, a group effort launched in 2011 by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association.
Last summer, the FWRA released an analysis of food waste based on data from manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers. The report found that while manufacturers are able to divert 94.6% of their food waste from landfills, including 73% which goes into animal feed, retailers and wholesalers may need to be more innovative when it comes to cutting waste. Retailers and wholesalers divert 55.6% of safe food from landfills to other sources, primarily food donations and composting programs.
Some big cities are experimenting with programs that require residents to compost their food scraps, and last summer in New York City, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to launch a similar program that would start out as a voluntary effort and eventually become mandatory, The New York Times reported. In November, Bloomberg took it further with a bill that would require restaurants that generate more than a ton of weekly food waste to participate in composting programs.
“We have a significant challenge ahead in order to make a dent in the 40% of food that currently goes uneaten in the United States. There is no reason to wait—improving upon the convoluted and ineffective system of date labels is one of the more straightforward ways we can address this issue, while providing a service to consumers by improving both food safety outcomes and economic impacts,” the report issued last year by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic concluded.
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