A way out of food waste: Upcycle food to hunger relief
Food waste is often mentioned in the news lately. Forty percent of food in America goes to waste and the annual estimated retail value of wasted food in the United States is more than $165 billion. Food is also the largest component of waste in our landfills. As food rots, it emits methane, a gas 20 times more harmful than CO2.
But there's good news: most food waste is preventable.
For the food retail industry, the waste comes in the form of excess, unsold food. A variety of fresh grains and produce are endlessly stocked in order to meet shoppers’ high expectations that items will be in perfect condition and on shelves — leaving imperfect, blemished foods to be pulled from shelves daily and thrown into dumpsters.
Food waste also comes in the form of close-dated perishables: unregulated sell-by dates prompt supermarket staff to pull products from the shelves daily.
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." Furthermore, the USDA estimates that annually $15 billion of fruits and vegetables are tossed at retail locations.
Although retailers are no longer able to sell the excess food directly to their customers, that food still holds tremendous value. Today, 49 million Americans struggle 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 to support community members in need, save costs on disposal fees and increase sustainability.
Upcycle to meal programs
Long-established methods targeted at solving hunger focus on non-perishables. Historically, retailers have not had an outlet for dated perishables: fruits, vegetables, dairy, proteins and prepared foods that provide a healthier dietary option.
Now, food rescue organizations provide a new solution: upcycle fresh food by directly connecting produce wholesalers, grocery stores and farms with 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 necessary, healthy meals for food-insecure families and individuals.
There is no liability risk to food retailers or grocers. In 1996, President 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.
The monetary benefits
Creating a food rescue program opens food retailers up to a number of cost savings initiatives. Businesses can see a reduction in waste removal fees when fewer products end up in dumpsters and compost bins. By keeping a ton or more of waste out of local landfills each week, grocers can save thousands of dollars 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 businesses 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. By keeping food out of the waste stream, businesses can ensure that the resources put into growing and transporting food are not 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 local communities it serves.
In 2014, Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a Greater Boston-based food rescue, began a partnership with Wegmans Food Markets, adding collections at two Wegmans locations in Massachusetts. Wegmans is a food retailer on the forefront of the food rescue movement. The company supports the national initiative co-launched by the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030. Wegmans recognizes food recovery as an important approach to addressing hunger, protecting natural resources and minimizing costs.
Lovin’ Spoonfuls and Wegmans carefully constructed a plan to precisely meet Wegmans operation, schedule and needs. Lovin’ Spoonfuls provided training and resources to Wegmans teams as they worked to roll out a contemporary donation system, and ensure the business is maximizing its impact.
"Wegmans is committed to making a difference in the communities we serve," said Jason Wadsworth, Wegmans' manager of sustainability. "Feeding people in need while reducing our environmental burden is a perfect example of sustainability in action. We rely on partners such as Lovin’ Spoonfuls to help us make good on those commitments."
To date, more than 70,000 pounds of fresh, nutritious food have been saved from these stores. The perishable food rescued means that tens of thousands of people were given access to healthier food options, and tons of greenhouse gases were not emitted by sending wholesome food to landfills.
Triple bottom line solutions
The partnership between a food retailer and food rescue organization has a powerful impact at all levels. Together, you are feeding thousands of people in the communities where you live, promoting healthy eating habits for those who do not have ready access, streamlining sustainability for producers and retailers, and lowering costs.