Grocery stores and restaurants serve up more than 400 million pounds of food each year, but nearly a third of it never makes it to a stomach.
With consumers demanding large displays of un-blemished, fresh produce or massive portion sizes, many grocery stores and restaurants end up tossing a mountain of perfectly edible food. Despite efforts to cut down on waste, the consumer end of the food chain still accounts for the largest share of food waste in the U.S. food system.
A full 10 percent of the available food supply in the U.S. is wasted every year at the retail level, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and about 20 percent is wasted at home. That’s food worth more than $160 billion. And it’s food that could go toward feeding the estimated one in seven American households that can’t find enough to eat.
Supermarkets sweep the aisles for ugly food
Shirley Phelps scans the banana stand at her local grocery store in Independence, Mo., looking for the perfect bunch for her cereal.
“I don’t want them too ripe,” she says, grabbing a bunch of medium-sized bananas still tinged with green – not the neighboring bunch that’s already turned color.
“They’re too ripe,” she says. “They have brown spots all over them and they would be banana bread before I had a chance to try to do anything with them.”
Historically, produce like bananas dotted with brown spots would be headed for the landfill because shoppers, like Phelps, often expect their fruits and veggies to be immaculate.
“(It’s a) perfectly good banana,” said Paul Hoppman, store director at the Hy-Vee in Independence. “It won’t sell because it just doesn’t look good.”
Hoppman says presentation is paramount to keeping business. That means culling the aisles for fruit deemed too ripe and making sure the stands are stocked to the brim with perfect bounty year round.
“It’s a fine line you’re walking, having the best fruit out there that is going to taste good to the customer but not breaking down yet,” Hoppman said. “So we’re always rotating (out the less desirable produce).”
In the U.S., food waste is largely a consumer problem. It comes down to shoppers demanding stocked shelves, buying too much and generally treating food as a renewable resource.
Dinner on demand
“To me the biggest amount of wasted food is prepared food,” said Katy Bunder, executive director of Food Finders, a food rescue program in Indiana that redistributes unsellable food to food banks.
Programs like Food Finders are one way grocery stores and restaurants are trying to cut down on food waste. But Bunder says she’s scrambling to deal with waste from pre-made meals as more stores cater to convenience shoppers with ready-made dishes.
“We can’t repackage it, freeze it, hold on to it and then distribute it through our mobile pantry the next day,” Bunder said.
These appetizer plates, specialized salads and dinner dishes ready to microwave are in high-demand at grocery stores and so long as it’s making good money for the stores, the selections will grow and the aisle will expand.
Not a ‘throwaway’ date on the package
One of the biggest contributors to retail food waste is consumer confusion over date labels. Consumers often mistake “sell by” and “best by” dates for expiration dates, according to food-safety specialist Londa Nwadike.
“The dates are just kind of an indication of how long the food has been around, but they’re not really an indication of how safe the food is,” she said.
Nwadike says shoppers overlook perfectly safe food because there is no uniform standard for date labelling. Indeed, she says food producers pick the date to ensure the best quality of their product so you eat it at its most tasty and, in turn, buy it again. That leads to plenty of edible, healthful food getting tossed away for fear it’s not safe to eat.
In a study done in the United Kingdom, 20 percent of avoidable food waste was thrown out in homes because of label confusion. That confusion also sticks grocery store directors, like Hy-Vee’s Paul Hoppman, with heaps of healthful food that no one will buy. The only product with a federally required date label is infant formula – but only because nutrients in the product eventually degrade and not because of foodborne illness concerns.
Nwadike says a transparent, uniform date label policy and consumer education could mitigate that problem.
To reduce the food waste that gets trucked to a landfill, many grocery stores are turning to compost. Compost companies can take organic waste and turn it into a valuable soil amendment.
The Hy-Vee store in Independence has cut its landfill deliveries from three times a week to three times a month, thanks to the compost pile. Hoppman also works with church food banks which swing by daily to pick up unsold food. That earns the company a small tax write-off.
Grocery stores around the country are also using software that projects how much food to order from the warehouse so they’re not stuck with massive amounts of extra. But, Hoppman says, although these advancements are helpful, food waste is still a problem.
“As the stores have grown, that food waste [grew] more and more,” he said. “My progression of working in stores was 20,000- to a 30,000- to a 60,000-square-foot store and then this store is 82,000-square-feet.”
That can include a lot of square feet of uneaten food.