Battling produce waste is a critical sustainability issue that retailers tackle in-store and throughout the broader community.
Originally printed in the September 2022 issue of Produce Business.
Shrink is a business issue but it has acquired new dimensions as a key element in community relations and increasingly sustainability initiatives as more consumers understand what’s wasted and what that really costs.
Throughout the supply chain, from field to store shelf, food that was meant for people winds up as trash. In fact, one source claims roughly 35% of edibles that enter the food supply chain are thrown away.
Today’s socially and environmentally conscious consumers are looking to food retailers and the entire supply chain behind them to take action. But where do you start?
Natural Grocers, for one, is making the mitigation of food waste part of its daily operations in store and beyond.
“Nobody likes food waste,” declares Katie Macarelli, a spokesperson for Natural Grocers, Lakewood, CA. “We provide training to our employees on proper culling/rotation techniques, as well as accurate and efficient ordering practices to help us reduce produce shrink/waste as much as possible.”
There’s no cookie cutter template for addressing produce food waste. Solutions need to be flexible, given the number of growers, shippers, wholesalers, retailers and foodservice operators that make up the supply chain. Yet, more consumers are demanding it be done.
Research by First Insight and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, located in Philadelphia, found, in 2021, all demographics expressed a willingness to spend more for sustainable goods, and Generation X (1965-1980) and millennials (1981-1996), at 88% and 86%, respectively, surpassed Generation Z (1997-2012) at 81%. Baby boomers were least willing to spend more in relative terms, but 76% stated they would shell out extra dollars for sustainable products, more than triple the proportion of two years earlier.
More than 70% of every consumer cohort expect retailers to become more sustainable, with millennials at 79%, Gen Xers at 77%, Gen Zers at 76% and baby boomers at 73%.
And it’s no surprise to retailers: The Food Marketing Institute 2022 Speaks survey reveals a third of responding retailers said consumer demand for social responsibility, including waste reduction, packaging, animal welfare, labor practices, and related concerns, had impacted their businesses.
Although the work goes on throughout the supply chain, retail efforts are critical because of the close connection to the customer. The commitment Wakefern Food Corp. has made to reducing food waste is multifaceted and includes central efforts and those of the cooperative’s associated banners.
Wakefern and the coop’s affiliated store operator banners, including ShopRite, Price Rite Marketplace, The Fresh Grocer, Dearborn Market, Gourmet Garage and Fairway Market, donate more than 15,000 tons of fresh food annually. Wakefern facilities and stores also donate not quite retail-perfect, but perfectly edible, nutritious produce to local food pantries.
“Fighting hunger is a key initiative for us, and we are proud of the efforts we make across our cooperative and stores to get produce to food banks and people in need,” says Ross Farnsworth, vice president of produce, Wakefern, Keasbey, NJ. “Often, that involves logistics assistance from our warehouses and trucks, which transport those fresh food donations to our food bank partners.”
Food waste programs reside both in Wakefern and its banners. Last year, ShopRite sent more than 5,000 tons of food to these community resources. Food banks are the first destination for still-fresh unsold items, but in cases where that’s not appropriate, ShopRite sends fruits, vegetables and baked goods that do not sell to diversion partners rather than landfills. Over a recent two-year period, ShopRite stores sent 38 million pounds of food that customers did not purchase to diversion partners who turned most of it into animal feed for nearby farms.
The program has been so successful that partner Organix Recycling, the largest food waste recycler in the U.S., presented ShopRite with its inaugural Pioneer Award in 2019, recognizing ShopRite’s efforts to continually expand its food waste diversion program. Most of the food waste that ShopRite stores send to Organix goes to farms within the same state or region.
Also, Wakefern’s compost program converts food waste to animal feed and fertile soil while a cooking oil recycling program transforms that and grease to biofuel. In 2020, Wakefern successfully diverted over 20,000 tons of food waste from landfills.
In another initiative launched last year, Wakefern adopted the latest version of Reusable Plastic Containers (RPCs) for its produce operation to help improve quality, sustainability and lower costs for customers. Wakefern worked with partners, including IFCO and Tosca, to secure RPCs that ensure freshness, feature highly ventilated, foldable and sturdy designs, stack efficiently and integrate with automated processes, thus reducing potential food loss through the supply chain.
“Adopting reusable RPCs is a win for our customers, our suppliers, the environment and Wakefern,” says Robert Zuehlke, manager of corporate social responsibility for the co-op. “Wakefern is focused on engaging vendors whose products help drive a more sustainable future by reducing the environmental impacts of packaging, food waste and greenhouse gas emissions.”
Cincinnati-based Kroger has made food waste mitigation a priority via its Zero Hunger|Zero Waste campaign, among other initiatives. As a result, the company recently won a 2022 Corporate Partner Hunger Leadership Award from the Congressional Hunger Center. The award recognizes distinguished leaders whose commitment is paving the way to achieving zero hunger in the U.S. and around the world.
In its 2022 Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) report, Kroger describes its Zero Hunger | Zero Waste plan as an ongoing commitment to free communities from hunger and food waste. Kroger is leaning on its operational ability, as well as working to optimize store-level execution, applying technology to recover and redistribute more surplus food and aligning charitable giving to make it more effective. Last year, according to the report, Kroger directed 546 million meals to communities in its market area, including food donations and funds, having sent 2.3 billion meals since 2017 toward a 3-billion-meal goal by 2025.
Kroger operates food waste recycling programs in 2,539 stores, up from 2,407 in 2020, representing 92% of the total.
In 2021, the amount of food waste generated by Kroger-operated stores increased slightly by 0.42% to 269,382 tons, but the percentage of food waste diverted from landfills improved by 0.5 percentage points, to 48.8%.
Among its other efforts, Kroger operates two facilities using anaerobic digestion technology into biogas that produces renewable electricity. Anaerobic digestion absorbed about 30,000 tons of Kroger waste in 2021, while almost 60,000 tons went to animal feed and a little over 20,000 tons went to composting.
The importance of ESG programs has prompted Albertsons Co., Boise, ID, to focus attention on its social ambitions even in its communications with investors and analysts. In the company’s first quarter conference call, Albertsons CEO Vivek Sankaran announced the company is “further embedding ESG throughout our operations,” and launched a new ESG framework in April focusing on eliminating food waste, reducing the use of plastic and accelerating “a transition to a more circular economy.”
Albertsons set a goal of moving zero waste to landfills by 2030.
An Albertsons spokesperson points out, as the second largest grocer in the country, the company wants to use its national presence and expertise to create change and devise meaningful solutions. That’s why it announced its long-term ESG commitments, dubbed Recipe for Change, and is “integrating sustainability into every aspect of our business,” says the spokesperson.
Albertsons has made reducing food waste going to landfills a priority for stores, but also for distribution centers and manufacturing facilities. Albertsons is a member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) U.S. Food Loss and Waste Champions, and has worked to refine both the measurement and reporting of its food waste baseline and progress.
In produce, Albertsons is using less-than-perfect fruits and vegetables in its fresh-cut programs, and is also donating edible food and packaged food products that are nearing their expiration dates to local food banks. Albertsons generally donates more than 75 million pounds of food every year, and it is diverting inedible food to partners who then process the food for beneficial uses such as animal feed, anaerobic digestion or composting, according to the company.
In the Pacific Northwest, it struck a deal to send some of its food waste to a biodigester that creates biogas and soil nutrients for an organic farm. The biogas is then converted to electricity, which powers the onsite plant that packages fruit, which ends up in Albertsons stores.
AMAZON AND WHOLE FOODS
Amazon, Seattle, WA, has been a sustainability leader, including as a co-founder of The Climate Pledge, an assembly of individuals, organizations, partners and companies working to address the climate crisis Amazon has also signed off on a commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, 10 years ahead of the international Paris Agreement determinations.
Although its commitments are broad, food waste is an area the company is addressing, a company spokesperson says, and redirecting food waste has been a measure incorporated in the Amazon approach.
As an online food retailer and an operator of physical grocery stores, Amazon is driving to reduce its food waste by 50% across its U.S. and European operations by 2030 and, like Albertsons, is a USDA-EPA Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champion. As such, it is optimizing food inventory management systems to minimize waste from the outset and prioritizing actions that keep edibles out of landfills.
Amazon donates surplus food — 85 million pounds in 2021 — through community redistribution programs, like Feeding America. In Europe, it donated more than 4,000 tons of food last year. All of its U.S. grocery stores have a donation partner, as do its grocery stores in the United Kingdom.
“We donated an equivalent of 80 million meals across the U.S. and Europe,” the spokesperson says. “Sustainability and food waste continue to be a priority for us.”
Amazon directs food that can’t be donated to destinations other than landfills such as composting and anaerobic digestion organizations, diverting 27,000 tons of food in that way worldwide during 2021.
All Amazon Fresh stores operating in the United States run composting programs for food not able to be donated.
Whole Foods Markets, which was acquired by Amazon in 2017, have active composting programs at some 470 locations and collectively diverted more than 155,000 tons of food waste by 2021’s end. Whole Foods sent another 2,775 tons of food to anaerobic digestion facilities through an organic waste recycling system called Grind2Energy, which has taken 12,500 tons of Whole Foods waste since 2014, creating enough renewable energy to power about 2,500 U.S. homes for a month.
In 2020, Whole Foods also launched Whole Foods Nourishing our Neighborhoods, a program developed to expand capacity of community-based food rescue organizations. To kick off the program, Whole Foods donated funds to purchase 19 refrigerated vans while kicking in two refrigerated catering vans, allowing community-based food rescue and redistribution programs to transport perishable and nonperishable food to communities in 18 markets across the United States and Canada. Food would come from Whole Food contributions and those of other businesses.
Macarelli says Natural Grocers has been building its food waste prevention up and out for years, and regards efficiency in ordering and handling its first step to prevent food waste.
“We’ve always been conscientious of food waste, but there is always room for improvement,” she says. “One way we improve is by training crews continuously to make sure they are not over-ordering on products. There is a learning curve to doing accurate orders at the stores, but it is a priority that the inventory be managed appropriately to not result in unnecessary waste.”
The market also harnesses technology to help predict how much of a particular product to order. Its Purchasing Data Integrity team is constantly developing new systems to analyze data or streamline ordering procedures so orders are as accurate as possible, she adds.
Additionally, at the store-level produce departments, Macarelli says there is an emphasis on culling food properly, storing it at the right temperature and making sure the inventory levels are managed “so that we have fresh food that can be used and not go bad as it gets home.” Depending on the store location and the local regulations, Natural Grocers also composts food that has been returned and cannot be resold.
No matter how good systems and intentions might be, federal, state and local rules govern the handling and diversion of food, and those regs can vary from market to market, which is one reason that handling food waste remains a market by market consideration in many places.
“There are strict rules on perishable food and nonperishable food, specifically any produce or animal products like eggs, meat or dairy products,” Macarelli says. “There are varying requirements on what can or cannot be donated versus what is required to be disposed of in the trash. These rules are strictly enforced and followed at stores because of food safety concerns.”
Natural Grocers isn’t alone in making efficient systems a priority as it moves to mitigate food waste. Earlier this year, Albertsons announced a partnership with Afresh Technologies and its AI-powered platform to better manage inventory and fresh product supply, helping to reduce food waste, lower greenhouse gas emissions and save water. At Wakefern’s ShopRite banner, the Indirect Procurement Department is dedicated to efficiently sourcing goods and services used by ShopRite stores and each purchase it makes includes sustainability as a criteria.
The Giant Co. announced in June of last year it would introduce Flashflood to all Giant and Martin’s stores following a successful pilot that began in May 2020 at four Giant stores in Lancaster, PA. The expansion targeted 170 participating Giant and Martin’s stores.
Flashfood, Toronto, started when founder and CEO Josh Domingues spoke to his sister, a chef, about $4,000 worth of food leftover from a catering job that had to be trashed. That led him to develop the Flashfood app. Through it, users can browse food that is getting near the end of its useful life and order what they find at a discount.
“A lot of grocers have food waste reduction targets, but just have such a difficult time solving for them,” Domingues says.
At the Giant Co., Carlisle, PA, Flashfood provides customers “with access to fresh foods, while also helping to divert more than 250,000 pounds of additional food waste away from landfills,” says Glennis Harris, senior vice president of customer experience. “We’ve received great feedback over the past year from our customers, many of whom have told us they can eat more fresh food because of the program.”
With Flashfood, a store essentially does what it would when throwing food out, but instead organizes for consumers who want it. Generally, consumers pick up their Flashfood orders at a customer service desk, although other means are occasionally used, such as accessible refrigerated cases.
A key advantage Flashfood creates is consumers can supplement what they could normally afford via their local grocer rather than having to travel to a food bank or other such provider. Also, they can get it during a food retailer’s business hours rather than in the window the feeding organization sets, and those can be infrequent.
In addition, the app allows food selection, and feedback suggests many users enjoy the treasure hunt aspect of purchase, Domingues says. It even lets consumers know how much they’ve saved in greenhouse gasses that waste disposal would have generated otherwise.
“When you use Flashfood once or twice, you become a regular customer,” he says.
Flashfood has rolled out throughout Canada and is gaining ground in the U.S., with Meijer and Ahold USA also working with the company.
Too Good to Go takes a different approach to food waste, one that accommodates foodservice in addition to retail. Headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark and operating in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, it gives food retailers and restaurateurs the ability to package and sell food that would otherwise get tossed — again via an app.
Tyler Simmons, U.S. head of key accounts, says the operation started in 2016 when a group decided to work together on a functioning food waste solution, with an eye on perishables. App users browse participating stores and restaurants, then reserve and pay for what Too Good to Go calls a Surprise Bag. Users don’t select particular products, rather the contents of each Surprise Bag vary daily and app users can expect to get a range of products typical of the operation, whether it’s a neighborhood market, a bakery or even a pizzeria. Buyers head to the store during a pick-up period, usually based on the restaurant or store closing time, to pick up their food — often at about a third of the full retail price.
“It’s so simple,” Simmons says. “The store likes it because of the flexibility, and the consumers like it because they are getting a great deal. It’s just a win, win, win.”
He emphasizes that something like Too Good to Go, which ensures all parties involved get substantial benefits, allows people to take a direct role in addressing environmental concerns in their everyday lives.
“Two of those wins, the consumer and the planet, are really not only important, but rare. To be able to effectively invest in the environment by buying delicious food at one-third the retail cost, it’s almost too good to be true. And that’s in our name, Too Good to Go, this food is too good to go to waste, so we give you that opportunity to buy it.”
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Even as operations to divert food waste at the store level continue, more traditional feeding organizations are expanding their roles. In the Big Apple, Food Bank For New York City, an independent, nonprofit organization and a member of Feeding America, uses various means to accomplish its mission. In addition to retailers and foodservice operators, the food bank works within the food supply chain, by purchasing and accepting donations. On the Hunts Point Produce Market, for example, it both purchases from wholesalers and accepts donations of product that otherwise would be unlikely to move anywhere but into the trash, and often at the same time.
Leslie Gordon, president and chief executive, says retailers and foodservice operators are increasingly educating employees about their decision to support the food bank and why their role is important. As a result, the awareness has spurred more thinking about how minimizing food waste can be accomplished at retail and into other sectors.
“All boats float better together, so there is a rising tide of appreciation for why this is important and how this helps the retailer as well as people who are food insecure,” Gordon says.
At retail, in foodservice and through the supply chain, consciousness sparks action — particularly when benefits are clear to the parties involved, Gordon suggests.
The Food Bank For New York City has become more nimble in procurement, using donated funds wisely and jumping out ahead of demand occasions such as Thanksgiving to get good prices on what it purchases, Gordon says. It has also become more capable about accepting food donations, transporting them and helping all the organizations it works with properly handle edibles, including perishables.
For example, Gordon says the AIB-certified Food Bank For New York City times deliveries to food closets that may have very limited hours of operation, and it also helps with education and cold chain maintenance. So, when perishable goods leaves one of its refrigerated trucks, receivers can keep product cold, using food blankets the food bank provides, to keep food temperature safe during distribution periods. And it isn’t just cold chain. The New York food bank educates the 800 organizations it works with on a range of food safety topics to ensure donated food gets to the end user safely.
“Food safety is paramount,” Gordon says.
During the pandemic, the Food Bank For New York City invested heavily in capital improvements in cold and freezer cases, as well as racks to keep product off the floor, pallet jacks, forklifts to increase the throughput of the network it supports, which helps keep food, especially perishable food, moving through the system safely and smoothly.
THE LONG VIEW
Produce industry organizations, such as the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA), Newark, DE, are also doing their part to elevate the food waste issue. Tamara Muruetagoiena, IFPA director of sustainability, says food waste is part of the organization’s sustainability work, with food loss/waste being one of the seven IFPA sustainability focus areas.
What used to be a shrink issue became something larger, she adds. “The issue is fast evolving into an environmental one, since food waste is seen today as having a high environmental footprint.”
The association is taking a broad view of food waste, how the issue is evolving and means to make advances across the board.
“At IFPA, and in conjunction with our members, we are looking at food waste in the entire supply chain, because losses occur in every step — in the field, at the distribution center, at the retailer, etc.,” Muruetagoiena says. “We are also looking at and sharing solutions with our members.”
Solutions come in two main buckets — before or after arriving at the distribution center, she explains. On the “before” front, the solutions include technological, scientific and agronomic considerations, Muruetagoiena says. IFPA recently sponsored think tanks, podcasts, webinars, and related initiatives on the food waste topic, covering areas ranging from breeding and agronomy to pest repellents.
As produce reaches, then leaves, a distribution center, there are several diversion strategies IFPA has been discussing with members.
“The most common is the community one, where food is donated to food banks and other charities. The second one is to find another source of revenue through manufacturing,” she says.
Next comes donating produce and related edibles to livestock farms for feed use, then diversion through municipal composting where available, self composting and anaerobic digestion.
IFPA has developed or highlighted a number of initiatives, such as the Chefs to End Hunger program initiated by Vesta Foodservice, Santa Fe Springs, CA, which works with its foodservice partners to backhaul unused food on the same trucks that make its deliveries. It also offers a Sustainability Audit Scheme that compares 50 environmental audit methodologies.
PUSHING FOR CHANGE
In Utica, NY, Mike Servello, a pastor whose parents were in the produce business, founded Bargain Grocery as a way to provide low-cost food to people who needed it, while generating enough profits to fund his larger charitable organization, Compassion Coalition. Only later, did he discover he had become a grocery oasis in a food desert, and, because he worked with retailers and others to repurpose food that would otherwise be thrown away, a vehicle to mitigate food waste.
Servello points out that, despite advances made, food waste continues to be a challenge because it’s more difficult to safely and easily transfer produce, meat, dairy and bakery products out of stores and into the hands of people who need them — especially in smaller cities, towns and rural areas.
Progress is being made, but Servello says more needs to be done. Although a lot of the discussion is about tons donated and goals established, the human dimension should guide the thinking behind how to confront the issue.
“You have to give people a choice,” he says.
Servello has promoted the idea of government incentivizing growers through tax breaks or other methods, to donate food that won’t get a suitable return if harvested. In his opinion, from the top to bottom of the food chain, the capacity to turn food waste into something positive isn’t there yet, and he would like to see more urgency in the fight against food waste.
“To me, we’re not taking it seriously enough,” Servello says.
• • •
What Should Growers Be Planting?
Today, more retailers are asking their partners through the supply chain to measure designated sustainability metrics, down to nitrogen and water use. As the issue evolves, they’re also asking growers to track food loss and waste.
Tools exist to do that, including a protocol developed by Lisa Johnson, Ph.D., an independent food and agriculture consultant and adjunct assistant professor at North Carolina State University. Johnson’s tool measures food lost in fields, which has been incorporated into an SaaS platform called CropTrak.
The development involves methods to ascertain how much of a given farm’s activity will eventually be profitable after harvest. What and how much is grown is an issue, because an Environmental Protection Agency-developed hierarchy of actions to cut down on food waste suggests the growers plant less, Johnson notes.
Yet, growers and others involved in the food industry don’t necessarily perceive such advice as the best solution to food waste. Indeed, in the pyramid that represents the preferred solutions to food waste, reducing volume is on top, with feeding hungry people second, feeding animals next, then industrial uses such as composting, landfill disposal or incinerating last.
Growers, not surprisingly, didn’t agree with that hierarchy and, based on discussions with them, Johnson has developed her own pyramid based on efficiency of better returns and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. The pyramid she developed starts with market consistency and high price, improved infrastructure for processing, increased produce demand, incentivized donations, alternative marketing, modifying consumer expectations, feeding animals and doing land application.
“The EPA’s goal is keeping waste out of the landfill,” she says. “On the farm, fruit and vegetables that aren’t harvested don’t wind up in the landfill.”
So, from this perspective, the question isn’t recovery of surplus food, but to establish ways to get all the planted crops consumed and the minimum amount possible plowed under.
• • •
Food Marketing Institute Pushes Food Waste Awareness, Solutions
In 2011, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), Washington, DC, joined the Food Waste Reduction Alliance with the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the National Restaurant Association in an effort to combat food waste up and down the supply chain, according to Andrew Harig, FMI vice president of tax, trade, sustainability and policy development.
The alliance has three goals: To reduce the amount of waste food generated; donate more safe, nutritious food to people who need it; and recycle unavoidable food waste, diverting it from landfills.
In the last 10 years, the alliance has undertaken a number of initiatives to clarify how food waste gets generated and how to minimize and deal with it.
“It has been interesting to see how this has evolved and how FMI members have responded,” Harig says. “Food is the No. 1 source of methane gas in landfills and when you waste food, you waste all the resources that went into it.”
The alliance has developed a Best Practices and Emerging Solutions Toolkit, outlining strategies food manufacturers, retailers and foodservice operators have used to make progress on food waste, while also sharing strategic approaches to reduce waste and keep food out of landfills.
FMI has taken its own steps to promote food waste mitigation. Last year, it threw support behind the Zero Food Waste Act, which would establish a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program for state, local and tribal communities to lead efforts in measuring, preventing and building the infrastructure necessary to decrease food waste. FMI also backs the Cultivating Organic Matter through the Promotion Of Sustainable Techniques Act, which would add composting as an approved practice in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs. It would create new USDA grant and loan guarantee programs for composting infrastructure projects, from large-scale composting facilities to farm, home or community projects.
FMI also has recognized companies trying to make a difference with its Community Uplift Awards, which spotlight various charitable and feeding programs.
FMI is taking a broad approach to food waste — educating, coordinating and encouraging retailers and suppliers to work in sync on dealing with the challenge, Harig says. Its efforts include persuading executive suite leaders to make food waste a priority, while also developing and enhancing analytics to provide better data with which to make decisions.
On the retail level, discussions include how to balance merchandising so displays are impressive, but not so abundant that they are bound to generate food waste, Harig says. Also, retailers are working with feeding organizations to handle more fresh food by improving cold chain capabilities.
Aligning with third party entrepreneurs, such as Flashfood and Too Good to Go, is another way retailers are making food waste mitigation progress, not only in terms of store-level diversion, but also by becoming research and development partners. Harig says third party trials supermarket operators have initiated will create data and experiences that can advance efforts to keep food waste out of landfills.
“What we’ve seen is some people had fabulous success, and for some members, it was a disaster, and they learned from that,” Harig says. “The solution that works in one place is not always going to work in other places, especially as we start to engage more with consumers.”
“This is something our companies have told us they are very interested in going forward — not just looking at it in their operations, but how do they help their consumers address this at home?” he adds.