ConAgra, Albertsons, Sodexo join fight to halve food waste

Beans considered too short to sell commercially were sent to a food pantry in Tennessee where volunteers package them for donation.

Hunger is the biggest obstacle to learning for children in public schools in Oakland, California, according to a survey of district teachers. In Washington, D.C., 31 percent of children live in “food-insecure” households. That's one in five residents across Louisiana. Ditto in New York City.

Hunger persists in the United States, where 48.1 million regularly face food insecurity or inadequate access to food. 

At the same time, one-third of the food produced in America is thrown out and winds up in landfills, said the Department of Agriculture. That 133 billion pounds of food waste in landfills becomes a major emitter of methane.

Somewhere between farm to table, a lot of good food is tossed out. Farmers chuck tomatoes or apples that are not cosmetically attractive. Supermarkets do the same or toss food that is near premature expiration dates. Restaurants finish their evenings with unserved food.

And consumers — the biggest culprits of all — throw out food from their refrigerators and plates.

An estimated 133 billion pounds of food waste go to municipal landfills, where it accounts for 18 percent of total U.S. methane emissions, accoding to the Environmental Protection Agency.

This week, the EPA and the USDA — along with about 253 companies including ConAgra, General Mills, Albertsons, Wegmans, 7-Eleven, Walmart, Kelloggs, BJ's Wholesale and Chipotle, plus charities, schools and faith groups — committed to drastically reduce food waste. 

The aim is to cut food waste in half by 2030.

The endeavor comes one week before businesses and diplomats meet in New York City to consider the Sustainable Development Goals — many of which focus on ending poverty and hunger — and confer at Climate Week.

The second of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals is “to end hunger [and] achieve food security,” and the third is to “ensure healthy lives.” Businesses and national governments have been asked to back them.

Many large corporations will be represented in New York for Climate Week meetings, so this issue is gaining exposure.

The combined corporate-federal intent is to bring new attention to what happens to food all along the production and distribution value chain so that resources aren’t wasted and un-served, unsold food gets to people who are hungry. The USDA plans to educate consumers.

Business commitments

ConAgra stated it’s a matter of managing resources.

“Solid waste is simply the result of wasted resources, representing an opportunity for further efficiency in our operations. Our continuous improvement program — based on a 'zero loss' philosophy — drives maximum use of all of our material resources,” ConAgra stated, announcing its participation.

“Nearly all solid waste generated at our manufacturing facilities consists of food (more than 80 percent) and packaging materials and much of it could be more aptly characterized as by-products vs. wastes.

“By re-setting the tone of how we talk about these materials, we can begin changing attitudes and behaviors in our facilities to better manage them for value.”

ConAgra said through efforts it began five years ago, it diverts about 75 to 90 percent of its solid waste away from its landfills. It did this by increasing its donations to charities that feed hungry people, improving processes to allow waste byproducts to be used as animal feed and increasing use of technologies such as anaerobic digestion to recovery energy and soil amendments from composting.

Now ConAgra aims to increase all of these activities.

The merged Safeway and Albertsons, and their 2,230 supermarkets, said it has had strategies to reduce waste at the store level — also a business imperative to reduce shrinkage — by more precise inventory replacement and just-in-time ordering. A second major activity, it stated, is donating food to hunger relief agencies. Safeway said it donates about 72 million pounds of food to hunger relief agencies, or the equivalent of about 59 million meals.

<p>Surplus oranges considered past their sell date or not orange enough became part of a Second Harvest food donation packaging effort.</p>

Several food companies are seeing the value of diverting food waste to animal feed processors and even biodiesel makers.

In its California and Pacific Northwest stores, Safeway has begun to collect bone and animal fat to send to feed lots. It collects used cooking oils in those regions to be recycled and processed into biodiesel fuel for delivery trucks.  Safeway said the Western states trial of this has been successful in that it diverts about 42,800 tons of food waste to animal feed lots and 4,680 tons of used cooking oil a year those regions to biodiesel producers.

General Mills said it has been recycling or reusing most of its food waste in the last three years, processing 84 percent of the approximately 159,000 metric tons of waste it generates at manufacturing plants. It also has a system of food donations from its factories to charities.

With the EPA and USDA initiative, it plans to add efficiencies to the donation system to minimize damage to food in transport and add packaging in its donations. It works through the nonprofit Feeding America. 

Secondly, it aims to work towards zero loss in production facilities, both reducing waste generation and then capturing what waste exists for recycle, reuse or donation.

Whole Foods Markets will continue to donate food that has lost its attractiveness or saleability to We Don't Waste in various cities where Whole Foods operates.

Bon Appetit Management, 7-Eleven Stores, Unilever, Walmart and even the Milwaukee Brewers have made commitments to reduce food waste.

Thirty-one colleges and universities, about 100 K-through-12 schools and the state of Connecticut also committed to the effort.