SOCIAL SUSTAINABILITY Kroger Empowers and Enables Employees to Engage with Their Communities

Kroger Partners With Feeding America

While donations might technically be bruised or past their “sell-by date,” Kroger puts them to good use and into the hands of those who need them. Eric Davis, director of retail product resourcing at Feeding America, based in Chicago, IL, sits down with Mira Slott, special projects editor for PRODUCE BUSINESS, to discuss the ins and out of its partnership with Kroger.

PRODUCE BUSINESS: Could you tell us about your partnership with Kroger?

Eric Davis: Kroger, as the largest traditional supermarket chain, has been very progressive about rescuing nutritious food and making sure it comes to us and doesn’t go to waste so we can feed the hungry through our network of some 200 food banks. We are now the largest domestic hunger-relief organization, but Kroger is one of our oldest retail donors. It was donating food when we were named Second Harvest, from the very beginning more than 20 years ago.

PB: How did Kroger’s involvement evolve?

Davis: Initially, we began testing the concept with Kroger about eight years ago. I actually started the pro-gram, and Diane Letson, director of business development, is assigned specifically to the Kroger account.

Traditionally, food banks have received food donations through reclamation — damaged non-perishable goods — but these have been on the decline because retailers are becoming more efficient. We asked Kroger what other items were being thrown away and learned that meats, deli products, produce, bakery and dairy, although still wholesome and use-able, didn’t meet standards for customer purchase.

Perhaps the banana didn’t have enough shelf-life. The same went for meat. If Kroger is marketing freshness, it didn’t want to sell meat past its sell-by-date, even if it was still good. We wanted to recover those products.
PB: How are standards deter-mined and maintained for this program?
Davis: We went to the Conference for Food Protection, a non-profit organization made up of food industry people, based in Washington, D.C., which created a set of guide-lines to allow companies to donate perishable products to food banks. We took those guidelines to Kroger to use in setting aside perishable products still wholesome and use-able for food banks to collect.

Basically, we sat down with Kroger and came up with a program strategy and more comprehensive standards. Food banks could come to the stores two to three times a week. To make sure product was picked up and stored at the right temperature, Kroger set up an additional set of guidelines that food banks would use to do a second inspection and double check that everything meets those guidelines, and if something falls through the cracks, the product is discarded.

PB: Could you take us through a typical scenario?

Davis: At the beginning or end of the day, associates walk those departments and pull everything off the shelf or case that doesn’t meet Kroger market standards, and they place products in appropriate storage units, so meat goes in a freezer, produce in a cold dry place, etc.

Typically with Kroger product, it is picked up two to three times a week and goes back to the food bank where product is again inspected and sorted, and then distributed to organizations that supply products to clients directly, such as a church or food pantry, any place where the mission is to help people having a hard time making ends meet.

The working poor might come to a food pantry at the end of the month. Maybe it is someone who had to pay a large hospital bill and couldn’t afford food. They pick up a box that could contain meat, deli, produce and bakery products.

PB: Is that range of variety and freshness unusual?

Davis: The great thing about this particular program is that almost all products we’re picking up from the grocery store are nutritious, except perhaps bakery. The produce, meat and deli items meet nutritional guidelines.

One of the things in food banking is making sure the food we supply is nutritious. We want to make sure the poor are receiving food that meets all the nutritional guidelines. We may not pay for a tomato that has a slight bruise or cut in it, but there is nothing wrong with it. This product was going to a landfill, or at best, to a composting facility, and now we are able to feed someone in need.

PB: In speaking with Joe Miskimins, Kroger’s vice president for produce and floral, he pointed out that many fresh fruits and vegetables can be difficult to donate due to their highly perishable properties, but that the program is continuing to expand in this area. What is your perspective?

Davis: When the program started, in general, all categories were authorized, but some Kroger divisions started with bakery and then added meat and then added dairy and now are adding produce. Not all Kroger divisions have all categories, but that’s the current mission — to get all programs on board. This program started in the West and is going east, and so goes produce. Slowly, the programs are growing the produce portion.
Early on, people weren’t sure what produce would be available, and when they started to see the quality, and what was being set aside for composting and trash, the reaction was, “Wow, this product still has two to three days shelf-life and we can use it.”

PB: How do you work with Kroger to balance pockets of the country where the food banks are less sophisticated or unable to meet the demands of the community?

Davis: This program has exponentially grown over the years. Opportunity has exceeded capacity. In areas where Kroger has hundreds of stores that exceed food bank capacity, there has been a need to elicit smaller organizations to help pick the product up. While this empowers food kitchens and pantries to pick up food directly, we have to be sure they can do that safely. We can’t just turn that over to the agency until they have the proper equipment and operations to handle it.

PB: Who determines that?

Davis: That’s Feeding America’s job — to certify those organizations and ensure they have the proper operating environment. Kroger also supports Feeding America through cause-marketing programs that help us build the infrastructure program. We can buy thermal blankets, refrigerators and other equipment to ensure the program’s viability.

PB: What opportunities do you envision going forward that might interest the produce industry?

Davis: Our goal is to continue to grow this program. As an organization, this is only a small fraction of what we do at Feeding America on the produce side. Produce is a huge initiative for us going forward.