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How Grocers Can Reduce Food Waste Now

Finding utility in new places is among the most effective ways to tackle the estimated $218 billion crisis
Photograph: Shutterstock

In the United States, 40% of the food produced is never eaten, which results in massive economic, environmental and social ramifications. According to ReFED, approximately $218 billion is wasted on growing, processing, transporting and disposing food that is never eaten. The consequences of food waste are not just economic, either; many resources were consumed in producing and transporting this uneaten food.

The planet is left bearing the majority of the burden on food waste. Meanwhile, 15 million households in the United States are food insecure, meaning these households are uncertain if they would be able to provide food that meets the needs of their families, due to insufficient funds or other resources. With the demonstrated consequences in food waste space and the potential to increase food security across the country, something should be done.

Matthew Hollis

Photograph courtesy of Matthew Hollis

The grocery industry has come under recent fire for its food waste problem. Supermarkets discard approximately 43 billion pounds of food a year. While grocery franchises may be part of the challenge when it comes to food waste, they can also become a part of the solution. After conducting an initial waste audit, best practices for food waste-savvy grocers include benchmarking your company’s food waste to know where to prioritize efforts, initiating an imperfect produce program, standardizing date labels, and communicating with suppliers to update frequency and reduce the size of orders.

However, when food has ultimately reached the end of its life span at the grocery store, grocers can still do their part in diverting this waste from the landfill by donating to local food banks or composting it. Ultimately, food waste reduction efforts will benefit the grocer’s bottom line, the food insecure and the environment.

Waste Audit 

Do you know how much your store throws away? It’s important to do preliminary benchmarking of your waste volumes to create a baseline. Without this important data, it will be difficult to determine the efficacy of any initiatives you decide to implement. There are several online resources to help you conduct a waste audit, but be prepared to get your hands dirty to understand your company’s waste stream. With this information, you can forecast future volumes and find opportunities to reclaim the value in your waste.

Imperfect Produce Program 

Many grocers discard perfectly edible produce that does not meet visual standards. However, these items can still be eaten, rather than being wasted in a landfill. Many consumers are still willing to purchase these items at a discount. For example, Kroger recently launched an imperfect produce program through Pickuliar Picks and found that customers have no problem selecting misshapen or irregularly sized produce when given the option. Do some research and see if your grocery franchise is able to incorporate a program like this to maximize the value in your produce inventory.

Date Label Standardization 

One common issue that leads to food waste is the nonstandard use of date labels. Current practices on food packaging cause confusion with “Sell by,” “Best by,” “Use by,” and “Best before” dates, leading up to 90% of Americans to occasionally throw out still-fresh food. There is no mandatory governmental regulation when it comes to labeling food products. In May 2019, the Food and Drug Administration supported the voluntary use of “best if used by” to reflect the manufacturer’s estimate at optimal quality rather than safety. Confusion over the meaning of date labels is estimated to account for 20% of consumer waste of safe, edible food. This equates to approximately $29 billion of wasted consumer spending each year; 5% to 10% of this is expected to be impacted by standardized date labels.

As food date labels become more consistent, consumer education campaigns will become more effective with the eliminated confusion. As a grocer, supporting manufacturers that use standardized date labels will help in food waste reduction.

Inventory Management 

While conventional wisdom states that consumers will buy more if the shelves are overstocked, this practice can be incredibly wasteful and is in many cases no longer accurate. In one study, when Stop & Shop analyzed its overstocking practices, the company found overfilled displays not only led to spoilage on the shelf but also could displease customers due to spoiled product and require more staff handling to sort out the damaged items. In its study, customer satisfaction actually increased when shelves were not overstocked.

Grocers can better manage their inventory to prevent perishables from spoiling before they can be purchased by the consumer. When ordering less, grocers are not only saving themselves money but also are sparing the environment the cost to produce and ship the wasted food.

Food Donation 

While it is crucial to reduce the amount of potential food waste from the source, there will likely still be some residual food left on shelves. When these products are ending their life span in the grocery, several organizations will still accept safe, edible food. Since 1996, the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act encourages the donation of food and grocery products to nonprofit organizations for distribution to individuals in need. This law prevents individuals and organizations from liability in food donation. Food banks and other nonprofits gladly accept donations to feed America’s food-insecure households. Grocers can feel confident knowing their unsold products can be used to feed the hungry, rather than contribute to landfill volumes.

When waste is considered an asset rather than a necessary byproduct of operations, stores can begin to harness the true value within their waste stream. After conducting a preliminary waste audit, stores can begin to find missed opportunities to save money in their trash. Also, an imperfect produce program can allow customers to select “ugly” fruit and decrease the amount of edible food being thrown away. Evaluate how date labels are informing consumer purchasing and disposal habits, and reduce order sizes to prevent perishables from spoiling prior to being purchased. Finally, edible food that is no longer able to be sold can still be diverted from the landfill through food bank donation.

Reducing food waste across every store in the operation requires a firm commitment from all staff members to cutting costs and finding utility in new places. In the end, food waste reduction efforts will benefit your bottom line, the food insecure and the environment.

Matt Hollis is the founder and president of Elytus, an industry leader in food waste sustainability.

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