How Grocers (and Shoppers) Can Fight Food Waste

Food retail is a $5.75 trillion industry in the U.S., with over 38,000 supermarkets bringing in about $650 billion a year – and, together with shoppers, trashing as much as 40% of its food.

Food waste is an enormous problem. It costs retailers about $18.2 billion a year, according to Refed, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting food waste. Globally, fruits and vegetables are the number-one wasted food, with between 40-50% going to the dump, followed by meat, dairy, seafood, and grains.

Some grocers are acknowledging their contributions to this problem, and taking ownership of their ability to reduce food waste. According to Grocery Dive, Kroger has recently committed to "diverting more food to hunger-relief organizations and trying to boost sales of imperfect produce." In September 2018, the Cincinnati-based grocer announced its goal to eliminate food waste entirely "across the company by 2025 though prevention, donation, and diversion efforts."

The announcement came five months after the company received a C in Reducing Food Waste in a report from the Center for Biological Diversity and the "Ugly" Fruit and Veg Campaign. The report, Checked Out: How U.S. Supermarkets Fail to Make the Grade in Reducing Food Waste, exposed the food-wasting habits of ten major grocers, grading them based on accountability, prevention, recovery, and recycling. None of the stores earned an A; the highest mark, a B, went to Walmart. ALDI came in last place with an F.

"Nine out of America’s 10 largest grocery companies fail to publicly report their total volume of food waste. Ahold Delhaize [the company that owns Food Lion, Giant, Stop & Shop, and other chains] was the only company that publicly reported its total food-waste volume," writes the report. "Four of the 10 companies have no imperfect produce initiatives, which can prevent the waste of imperfect fruits and vegetables."

The ever-popular Trader Joe's was one of the five stores to get a D, despite the fact that they've been hailed as a leader in food-waste reduction. According to Planet Forward, 100% of the store's foods that aren't fit for purchase are donated to food banks, including the hunger relief organization Feeding America. Every location has a donation coordinator, as Trader Joe's announced in January 2018.

(So why the low score in Checked Out? According to the report, the store has not made an official commitment to reducing food waste, and while they score high in donation programs, they score low in supply chain initiatives, corporate transparency, and animal feeding programs.)

Changing Policies
The fight against food waste isn't just taking place in stores. In 2015, the USDA and the EPA, along with the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals, announced that the U.S. would aim to halve food waste by 2030. "The federal government is seeking to work with communities, organizations and businesses along with our partners in state, tribal and local government," writes the EPA.

Changing Habits
Individuals are responsible for the largest portion of food waste, throwing away about 76 billion pounds annually in the U.S. This is often a result of overbuying. When households discard food, the waste is especially detrimental, because the food has already been grown, transported, stored, and sold – meaning its waste level is higher than if it was thrown away on the farm.

A 2018 report in scientific journal PLOS One concludes that individuals will play a crucial role in the mission: "Increasing consumers’ knowledge about how to prepare and store fruits and vegetables will be an essential component to reducing food waste." Community composting, another area of educational focus, is gaining traction as evidenced by the rapid growth of start-ups in the U.S.. These groups enable both individuals and businesses to take ownership of their trash, educating them on the impacts of diverting food waste from landfills back into soil - a concept known as nutrient cycling.

It appears that Americans are indeed concerned. Waves of books about waste-free living have been published in the last decade. Stores and subscription services dedicated to reducing waste and selling imperfect produce have popped up. Nonprofits and community organizations have formed, calling on individuals to change their shopping habits. Research shows that customers' values are shifting toward sustainability, signaling hope that shoppers will do their part to reduce waste.

Changing the tide
At the end of their report, Checked Out calls on U.S. grocers to commit to eliminating food waste by 2025. "To meet that goal," they write, "[grocers] must take concrete steps to reduce food waste in their supply chains and their stores and provide transparent public reporting on their progress as outlined in this report."

What are some concrete steps grocers can take to do that?

ReFED offers a slew of research-based ideas, including:

  • Standardized date labeling

  • Consumer education campaigns

  • Waste tracking and analytics

  • Donation management, delivery, storage, tracking, and automation

Other creative solutions that are emerging give customers insights into how much food they need to prepare a meal such as locai's Meal Planning application. By tracking ingredients added to a shoppers cart, and taking into account recipes they’ve previously earmarked, the app proposes subsequent recipes that utilize the leftover ingredients. This gives customers an easy way to shop smart, and it has enormous potential to reduce food waste.

To learn more about Meal Planning and locai's other end-to-end services, check us out here.