Food Recovery Versus Food Waste

Don Harris - Retail Perspective

The subject of food waste is becoming a more important topic Don Harris - Retail Perspectivethroughout the food industry‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬including produce‭. ‬Retail management‭ ‬has long felt that the proper way to attack the food waste problem is to donate excess food from the stores‭, ‬and occasionally from the warehouse‭, ‬to food banks and other organizations that feed the hungry‭. ‬While this act is certainly a noble initiative and‭ ‬represents philanthropy at its best‭, ‬there are certain faults that should be addressed‭. ‬

Management‭, ‬when approached about food waste‭, ‬highlights the efforts of their operation to donate to causes that feed the hungry‭. ‬In the world of produce‭, ‬this doesn’t work as well‭. ‬Management‭, ‬however does not see this difference‭, ‬and once again‭, ‬“they just don’t get it”‭!‬

In the world of agriculture in the United States‭, ‬there is a large amount of waste‭. ‬Figures vary from 6‭ ‬to 8‭ ‬billion pounds‭, ‬and‭ ‬up to 40‭ ‬percent of the total crops produced are wasted according to various research conducted by the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency‭. ‬Either way‭, ‬these numbers are very large and represent an untapped opportunity for the produce industry to‭ ‬make a substantial contribution to eliminate hunger in the United States‭. ‬

Retail programs for donating excess or out-of-date product to food banks are certainly helpful‭; ‬however‭, ‬the need for nutritious‭, ‬healthy food is higher than ever‭, ‬and produce can help eradicate food insecurity‭. ‬The paradox in this situation is that when food banks pick up from retail stores‭, ‬the quality of the produce is questionable at best‭.‬

The vast majority of retailers‭ (‬maybe all of them‭) ‬bill the produce department for the produce that is shipped to them from the‭ ‬warehouse‭. ‬This factor means the store is responsible for the value of the produce‭. ‬Naturally‭, ‬each business will do everything‭ ‬possible to try to sell that product to recoup the investment‭. ‬

Unsold product counts against the operation as‭ ‬“shrink‭.‬”‭ ‬It is standard for produce managers to keep product until it is absolutely not salable before discarding it‭. ‬Unfortunately‭, ‬this is the type of produce that ends up being donated along with the other products from the store to the food banks‭. ‬In most cases‭, ‬this cycle simply transfers the disposal of produce from the store to the food bank‭. ‬

I have personally seen much of this donated produce‭, ‬and it is very difficult to recover any of the usable food in this poor quality product‭.‬


Retail programs for donating excess or out-of-date product to food banks is certainly helpful; however, the need for nutritious, healthy food is higher than ever, and produce can help eradicate food insecurity.


The answer is to get produce donated before it becomes unsalable and unusable‭. ‬Perhaps an enlightened retailer might establish a‭ ‬solution to credit the store for the donations made to food banks‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬thus offsetting some of the produce departmental loss‭. ‬However‭, ‬this solution would be difficult to track and would have several questions from management about people abusing the practice‭. ‬

The best way to eliminate food waste and allow for more food recovery would be to train produce personnel to order more accurately‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬thereby generating less waste‭. ‬The second‭, ‬and more important‭, ‬way of assisting with food recovery and providing more fresh‭ ‬produce to feed the hungry requires innovative programs at the headquarters’‭ ‬level‭.‬

The best way to assist in the elimination of food waste would be to partner with relief organizations‭, ‬such as Feeding America‭ (‬which represents more than 200‭ ‬food banks across the country on the various contracts they make with growers for the product they need‭). ‬

As an example‭, ‬by making a contract with a grower to utilize discarded product and establishing quality standards and packaging‭ ‬specifications for shipments to local food banks‭, ‬the results will culminate in an improved process as well as quality food‭. ‬

It is a win-win situation‭: ‬the grower gets better utilization of his crop and his off-grade product is used to feed hungry people‭. ‬The retailer gets the benefit of the charitable publicity as well as potentially better costs as the grower can receive additional revenue from the food banks for the product‭. ‬

This process is known as PPO‭ (‬Pick and Pack Out‭), ‬which is a nominal fee paid to the grower by Feeding America to help offset the costs of harvesting this off-grade product‭. ‬While Feeding America is engaged in this type of activity with growers directly‭, ‬a‭ ‬partnership with a retail operation would make even more of this nutritious food available for those people in need of food‭.‬

It is an embarrassment for the United States that there are 48‭ ‬million people who are considered food insecure not knowing where‭ ‬their next meal is coming from or having to make hard choices between other necessities of life and food‭. ‬This type of resourceful action and others are ways to enhance food recovery‭, ‬reduce food waste‭, ‬and improve the situation hungry Americans‭. ‬


Don Harris is a 41-year veteran of the produce industry‭, ‬with most of that time spent in retail‭. ‬He worked in every aspect of the industry‭, ‬from‭ ‬“field-to-fork”‭ ‬in both the conventional and organic arenas‭. ‬Harris is presently consulting and is director of produce for the Chicago-based food charity organization‭, ‬Feeding America‭. ‬Comments can be directed to [email protected]‭.‬

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