Expert Column: A Triple Bottom-line Solution to Grocers’ Food Waste
The statistics are staggering: 40 percent of food in the United States goes to waste. It's the single largest component of our landfills, and the retail value of wasted food in America is estimated at more than $165 billion per year.
For grocers and food retailers, that waste comes in the form of unsold, excess food. Large varieties of fresh produce and grains are continuously stocked to meet shoppers' high expectations that any and all items will be available and ripe – leaving imperfect, blemished foods to be culled from the shelves daily and thrown in the trash. The waste also comes in the form of close-dated perishables; unregulated sell-by dates prompt team members to pull products from the shelves.
As a result, tons of perishable products are wasted every day, in every part of the country. According to the National Resource Defense Council's most recent data, "in-store food losses in the United States totaled an estimated 43 billion pounds, equivalent to 10 percent of the total food supply at the retail level." Additionally, the USDA estimates that $15 billion of fruits and vegetables alone are tossed at retail locations annually.
Though retailers are no longer able to sell the food directly to their customers, the excess food still holds tremendous value. Today 49 million Americans struggle daily with food insecurity, which the USDA defines as having "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods." Capturing that perishable product by working with a food rescue partner provides an easy and scalable triple bottom-line solution for grocers and food retailers: support community members in need, save costs on disposal fees and increase sustainability.
Hunger Is a Distribution Problem
Traditional hunger relief methods focus on nonperishables, and historically retailers haven't had an outlet for culled perishables such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, proteins and prepared foods.
These days, food rescue organizations provide a solution to upcycle food by directly connecting grocery stores, produce wholesalers and farms to local meal programs and social service entities serving those in need. "Rescued" perishable food is distributed daily and used immediately by soup kitchens, homeless shelters, food pantries, senior centers and other organizations, thereby providing much-needed healthy meals for food-insecure families and individuals.
There's no liability risk to grocers. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act to encourage donation of food and grocery products to nonprofit organizations for distribution to individuals in need. The law provides businesses with protection from liability when food donations are made to a nonprofit organization, including protection from civil and criminal liability should the product donated in good faith later cause harm to the recipient.
Establishing a food rescue program opens grocers up to numerous cost-savings initiatives. By allowing fewer products to end up in Dumpsters and compost bins, businesses can see a reduction in waste removal fees. By keeping a ton or more of waste out of local landfills each week, grocers can save upwards of $200 regularly on disposal fees, netting thousands in savings each year.
Businesses are also eligible for enhanced federal tax deductions when the product is donated to a qualified nonprofit. For example, IRS Revenue Code 170(e)(3) allows qualified business taxpayers to deduct the cost to produce the rescued food, and half the difference between the cost and full market value of it.
Beyond the bottom line, food rescue can play a valuable role in increasing a retailer's sustainability efforts. The environmental impact of food waste is enormous:
- $750 million is spent each year in the United States to incinerate and dispose of unwanted food.
- 300 million barrels of oil and one-quarter of total freshwater are used each year to produce food that's ultimately wasted.
- Decomposing food in landfills emits methane, a gas that has effect on global climate change that’s nearly 25 times more potent than that of carbon dioxide.
By keeping food out of the waste stream, businesses can ensure that the resources put into growing and transporting food aren't wasted. Furthermore, a well-organized and -executed food rescue program showcases a grocer's commitment to reducing its environmental footprint while broadening access to healthier food options in the local community it serves.
Food Rescue in Action
In 2013, Lovin' Spoonfuls, a greater Boston-based food rescue organization, began a partnership with Scarborough, Maine-based Hannaford Supermarkets, adding collections at two of the Delhaize America chain's locations in Waltham and Norwood, Mass. To date, more than 200,000 pounds of fresh, healthy food have been saved from these stores. The 100-plus tons of product diverted from landfills means that tens of thousands of people were given access to better food options, and 380 tons of greenhouse gases weren't emitted.
The food rescue solution was carefully crafted by Lovin' Spoonfuls and designed specifically to meet Hannaford's business, needs, and schedule. The organization provided training and resources to Hannaford's teams as they worked to roll out a modern donation system, and to ensure that the business is maximizing its impact.
A 2014 report by the nonprofit Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, in Manomet, Mass., found that Hannaford saved more than $15 million annually by implementing sustainability practices (including food rescue), while also diverting 125 million pounds of waste from landfills and keeping more than 430 million pounds of greenhouse gases from being emitted.
Triple Bottom-line Solutions
A partnership between a food retailer and a food rescue organization offers a powerful impact at every level. Together, you're feeding thousands of people in the communities where you live, promoting healthy eating habits for those who don't have ready access, simplifying sustainability for producers and retailers and lowering costs.
PHOTO COURTESY OF KATY JORDAN