Grocery Chain Raley’s to Curb Food Waste by Selling Imperfect Produce
The California-based chain is selling imperfect product at a discount in an effort to curb food waste
Less-than-perfect produce is still perfectly edible, but is often overlooked because it doesn’t fit the bill of what people want in their produce.
Raley’s, a grocery chain with over 100 stores throughout California and Nevada, is starting a pilot program in 10 northern California stores called “Real Good” in July. The so-called imperfect fruits and vegetables will be available for around 30-40 percent discount.
Buying produce is an exercise with our eyes. We sort through bushels of apples and boxes of strawberries looking for the perfect specimen, and discard those that don’t meet our expectations.
It’s this mentality of demanding perfection in our produce that is helping contribute to the worldwide problem of food waste. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, food waste costs the world $2.6 trillion yearly.
Grocery chains often avoid less-than-perfect fruit altogether because customers simply aren’t interested in it. Anywhere between 1 to 30 percent of a farmer’s crop doesn’t make it to grocery stores, which greatly contributes to food waste, explains the National Resources Defense Council.
Working with a startup company called Imperfect, Raley’s, which has 128 locations, is trying to change the narrative of what we look for in in our produce.
“Fruits and vegetables come in all shapes and sizes, just like people,” says Imperfect co-founder of Ben Simon in a promo video for Imperfect. “The weird-looking fruits and vegetables taste just as good as the perfect-looking ones. Unfortunately, supermarkets reject the produce that doesn’t look perfect.”
The idea of selling less-than-perfect fruit isn’t new, but we will have to wait and see if it will catch on in other American grocery chains.
The Food Waste Problem Has an Easily Avoidable Cause: Everyone’s Too Picky
The trendiest topic in food isn’t tacos or bone broth or nitro cold brew. It’s the flip side of our abundant appetite for good food: the remains of the plate. It’s food waste.
In the past week alone, the headlines wouldn’t quit. Former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch opened nonprofit grocery store Daily Table in Boston, its shelves stocked with “rescued” surplus and unsold food donated by wholesalers and for-profit grocery stores and otherwise destined for Dumpsters owing to nearing sell-by dates. On the other side of the country, grocery chain Raley’s, in partnership with Imperfect Produce, will pilot selling “ugly” fruits and vegetables in 10 Northern California stores in mid-July, NPR reported. (We’re a bit late to the party French supermarket Intermarche held a stunning campaign last summer in homage to “the failed lemon” and “the grotesque apple.”)
It’s all rather good news, except when you look at the underlying reasons why up to 40 percent of our food gets fed straight to the trash can. A recent study from Johns Hopkins University parses it down to one easily avoidable factor: We’re picky .
One of the most common reasons respondents gave for throwing away food was that they want to eat only the freshest of the fresh. Worst of all, no one thinks our garbage stinks. In a press release about her research, Roni Neff, who led the study, pointed out that “Americans perceive themselves of wasting very little food, but in reality, we are wasting substantial quantities.”
“We live in an era of abundance and cheap food,” Cinda Chavich, author of The Waste Not Want Not Cookbook , wrote in an email. “Consumers need to treat food as a valuable commodity instead of something that’s cheap and disposable.”
The solution is dead easy—and it’s one that cuts down on cash and carbon emissions alike: “Buy what you need, and plan to eat what you buy,” advised Chavich.
It’s not rocket science, but it is meaningful: Because roughly half of food waste comes from our kitchens , shopping and cooking habits can make a big dent. In general, our fussiness for freshness is mostly misplaced studies show food expiration dates are largely meaningless .
But in part the problem is we don’t know how to cook , not really. A recipe catches our eye on Pinterest we make a list we shop for ingredients. Chavich suggests instead that we “cook backwards.” That means putting to use what’s in abundance in the market and the vegetables already in the crisper in “mother” recipes: soup, frittata, fried rice, risotto, flatbread, pasta. Call it cooking from the hip. Also call it making your life a lot easier.
“This kind of local seasonal cooking is trendy now, but it’s really just basic, home-style farm or peasant cooking, the kind of food people have been cooking for centuries (and the way many people around the world still cook),” Chavich wrote.
So, Why Should You Care? According to a recent report by UNEP and the World Resources Institute (WRI), about one-third of all food produced worldwide, worth around US$1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems. When this figure is converted to calories, this means that about 1 in 4 calories intended for consumption is never actually eaten. Not only does all this lost food fill up landfills, but it also creates an artificial demand for more agricultural output, which hikes up the need for quick production methods like environmentally destructive monoculture farming and genetically modified, pesticide-resistant crops.
The "waste not, want not" mentality was originally about frugality, and we waste food in part because of the illusion that we can.
“It’s so cheap to buy food [that] we just look at it as a given, that it will always be there—‘I can go buy more tomorrow,’ ” Dan Nickey, associate director of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center, told NPR .
This kind of thinking is misguided, Chavich explained. “It’s a false economy to buy something that’s cheaper and end up throwing half of it away.”
“The industrial model gives us cheap food, but there are many other costs that we need to factor in when we choose food (how healthy it is for our bodies, the local farmers and the local economy, the environment). We now spend about 7 to 9 percent of our disposable income on food. In France it’s 14 percent, developing countries 30 percent. I think if we learned to value our food and our food producers more, we would all win,” she continued.
It would add stability to the global problem of food insecurity. The FAO estimates that global food production must increase 60 percent by 2050 to meet the demands of the ballooning world population. Cut the $2.6 trillion issue of global food waste in half by 2050, and we make up one-quarter of the gap.
Chavich is optimistic. “I think we can all make a difference, one meal at a time.”
What you need to know about the ugly food movement
The Ugly Food Movement is a force for change and promotes the consumption of what is often called ugly, wonky or imperfect produce, with the goal of getting ugly produce back into supermarkets and onto consumers’ tables.
Currently, many farmers discard imperfect produce, which amount to about 25% of each harvest. And only for the simple reason that grocery stores and supermarkets don’t buy it and consumers, who have learned to shop with their eyes, reject imperfect produce as it’s mistakenly associated with bad quality. Organizations such as California-based, Imperfect Produce, promote the ugly food to customers and sell imperfect fruits and vegetables to people at a great discount.
These campaigns not only curb food waste but benefit everyone in the food chain. Farmers that have spent water, energy and resources growing the produce are able to recover the costs and profit from selling a greater amount of their harvest, grocery stores have increased foot traffic and public support and consumers can purchase delicious veggies at a reduced price. As more supporters join the “ugly food” movement, the impact increases exponentially. Not to mention the greatest benefit is to the environment: eating food rather than wasting it and having to grow more, saves millions of pounds of carbon emissions and water.
Rather than selling vegetable and fruit basket for home delivery, some grocery stores are innovating new business models for selling ugly produce, for example: “take what you need, give what you can” where people pay whatever they can afford for the food. The available produce is mostly donated and beyond sell-by and use-by labels but still perfectly edible.
Inspired by the French initative's success, many European countries have followed suit. Coop Sweden recently announced it will begin to sell ugly fruit and veg at a reduced price in selected shops to curb food waste. They estimate up to 30% of food produce is discarded before it even reaches the shelves, simply because of appearance. An Axfood discount food store will also be inaugurated in Stockholm this autumn in collaboration with Stockholm Stadsmission. Here, prices will be down 70% percent compared to regular grocery stores, but shoppers will need a membership card to prove they are in greater need of discounted food.
Retailers, distributors and growers struggle to curb food waste
From uncovered fruit spoiling in the sun to excess purchases that go forgotten in our refrigerators, food waste is a serious global problem.
About one-third of the food produced for human consumption each year — some 1.3bn tonnes — is wasted or lost, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Growing public awareness is leading companies throughout the supply chain to tackle the problem, by ensuring as little food as possible is discarded in the journey from rm to fork”.
In the developing world, most food waste is due to inefficiencies in the supply chain, from harvesting through to distribution, and often the result of poor logistics systems and transport infrastructure. In developed economies, however, more than half of food waste occurs at the household level.
Many large grocery retailers in Britain send food left over from warehouses and supermarkets to charities that make meals for homeless shelters, after-school clubs and other people in need.
𠇏ood waste is an issue our customers, colleagues and suppliers really care about. We all feel guilty about throwing away food,” says Mark Little, head of food waste reduction at Tesco.
Tesco has stopped sending food to landfill and pledged that no food safe for human consumption will go to waste from its operations by the end of this year, by which it means that all waste will either be donated for human consumption or go into animal feed.
To tackle waste higher up its supply chain, the retailer last year joined rivals such as Asda and Morrisons by launching a line of “wonky” fruit and vegetables including misshapen apples, pears, potatoes, parsnips, cucumbers, courgettes and strawberries. The result is that items of food that were previously excluded from shelves for not matching aesthetic norms are now being sold to consumers.
Supermarket chain, Tesco has introduced a range of imperfect fruit in an effort to combat food wastage. © Tesco
“The range has been extremely popular with customers and another benefit is that the producer receives a better return,” adds Mr Little.
Far more waste occurs in UK food manufacturing than in retail, according to Wrap, the government’s waste advisory body. The restaurant and hospitality sector is another significant source of squandered food outside of the home.
Compass, the FTSE 100 group, which is Britain’s largest contract caterer, serving more than 1m meals a day, is installing “smart-scales” in its kitchens to combat the perennial problem of scraps and oversupply. The technology, developed by the start-up Winnow, consists of a weighing scale with a bin on top, connected to a tablet loaded with menus so that teams can record the type and amount of food being thrown away.
The data it collects can help kitchen managers judge whether it might be best to make fewer numbers of particular meals that fail to sell or reduce the portion size of meals that result in large amounts of leftovers. Data gathered through the system is saved and crunched at both the local level and centrally, giving chefs information to drive improvements in their production processes and better train staff. Compass says the system has helped kitchen staff at some sites reduce food waste by half.
“In a business like ours, being able to understand where overproduction is occurring is really important,” says Duncan Gray, head of corporate responsibility at 𠃬ompass Group UK & Ireland.
Despite measures like these, progress on food and drink waste appears to have stalled in the UK. The total domestic amount rose by 300,000 tonnes to 7.3m tonnes between 2012 and 2015, according to Wrap. Of this, more than half was estimated to have been edible at some point before its disposal, costing the average UK household a year.
Many campaigners say that supermarkets still need to do more to address a culture of overconsumption and wastefulness they accuse them of fostering. Criticisms over the wider environmental impact of increased packaging, designed to enhance the shelf life of goods, has also become a battleground between campaigners and retail businesses.
John Manners-Bell of Transport Intelligence, a logistics consultancy, says that some attacks on packaging are “short-sighted” as they fail to take into account the 𠇏ull lifecycle” of a product.
“If more produce deteriorates and is thrown away because of a lack of packaging, then actually all the energy which has been invested in bringing it to the marketplace has been wasted,” he adds.
Getting Ugly Produce Onto Tables So It Stays Out of Trash
EMERYVILLE, Calif. — The eggplants are crooked and a little long-necked, contorted enough that they would probably lose in a beauty pageant against rounder or more symmetrical aubergines.
In the field where they were grown or in the supermarkets for which they were once destined, they would presumably have been discarded. Not because they are inedible — simply because they do not make the aesthetic cut.
But the notion that real food has curves may be as catchy as the subversive advertising campaign on women’s beauty.
“We find that it is really easy to convince people when they realize they can pay a fraction of the price to get the same kind of taste and health,” said Ron Clark, the chief supply officer for Imperfect Produce, a San Francisco Bay Area start-up that has been selling what it calls “cosmetically challenged” fruit and vegetables for the last six months. “Once one person is convinced, it doesn’t take much to get them to convert others.”
Imperfect Produce delivers boxes of ugly fruit and vegetables to people’s doorsteps in the Bay Area. A large box of mixed produce — 17 to 20 pounds of fruits and vegetables, with five to eight types of items, depending on what is in season — costs $18, for example a small box of fruit (10 to 15 pounds) costs $12 a week. Mr. Clark primarily relies on buying produce directly from California farmers and supplements it with what he can find at wholesale produce markets in Oakland.
In food-obsessed San Francisco and its neighboring cities, the company has marketed itself in large part by relying on cheeky social media campaigns: A picture of a particularly odd-shaped pepper is accompanied with the message “bite me.” A particularly bulbous tomato is labeled “my curves are good for you,” and a strangely large lemon is “more to love.”
In some parts of the Bay Area, where farmers’ market shopping is the norm and a $10 heirloom tomato hardly raises eyebrows, the notion that produce can be slightly discolored or oddly formed hardly seems like a tough sell. But Mr. Clark and his colleagues have not had an easy time of convincing mainstream supermarkets that their produce should fill the aisles.
”There’s a leap here that not many buyers are willing to make yet,” Mr. Clark said. “We’ve expected uniform produce for decades, so it’s not going to change overnight.”
Raley’s, a grocery chain based in Northern California, sold Imperfect’s peppers, pears and apples for a few months this year, pricing them about 40 percent lower than their more traditional-looking counterparts. But after introducing the pilot program with much fanfare, the chain dropped it this fall. Store officials declined to comment for this article.
Jordan Figueiredo, a solid waste specialist in nearby Castro Valley, began a social media campaign promoting ugly produce this year. Each day, he sends out pictures — carrots joined at the hip, apples with ample middles, whatever strange-looking thing that catches his fancy. He began a petition asking Walmart and Whole Foods to commit to carrying ugly produce, but neither chain has signed on yet.
“There is a real chicken and an egg problem, because retailers say they won’t sell this because people don’t buy it, and people say they want to buy it but retailers won’t sell it,” said Jonathan Bloom, who wrote “American Wasteland,” exploring why so much food is wasted in the United States. From 1974 to 2006, the amount of food Americans wasted increased by 50 percent, he said, adding that ugly produce was the “gateway drug” into the larger and more complicated problems around food waste generally.
“Most people really don’t view the oddities as better, and quite the opposite,” Mr. Bloom said. “There is still some deep-seated, visceral notion that things that look perfect won’t harm us.”
Imperfect Produce is just one of the ways that entrepreneurs and environmentalists are grappling with food waste, which is increasingly seen as a kind of epidemic. In Boston, the former president of Trader Joe’s has opened a market and prepared-food shop that is selling packaged food that has passed its listed “sell-by” date but is still safe (and tasty) enough for consumption. The food at the market, called Daily Table, also includes produce that has been gleaned from local fields and orchards.
San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., have required household composting for years, and so do some other major cities, such as Seattle. In New York City, entire menus have been developed to limit food waste. A book published in September, “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook,” encourages home cooks to look for every chance to use a stalk that they might otherwise throw away its author, Dana Gunders, began her research of food waste for the Natural Resources Defense Council, where she is a staff scientist.
“The main reason that food doesn’t get harvested is because it will not meet shelf-life requirements,” Ms. Gunders said. “Now there’s a lot of energy about wanting to increase access to good food and wanting to get more out of the earth, so the juxtaposition of those things creates a lot of interest in this right now.”
At Imperfect Produce, Ben Simon, the chief executive, and Ben Chesler, the chief operating officer, began their work on food waste as college students, when they saw trays of food from the campus cafeterias thrown out each night. Mr. Chesler and Mr. Simon created Food Recovery Network, which now has more than 100 colleges donating uneaten food to soup kitchens.
“We kept hearing how much food was left, even in the fields,” Mr. Chesler said. “We see this as a way of getting more people to eat more healthy food.”
The pair met Mr. Clark, who had spent more than a decade working to bring produce that would have otherwise gone to waste to food banks across California. Using his relationship with suppliers, the three have created a business that has attracted attention from many of the tech luminaries in the region, including the design firm Ideo, which receives its own drop-off each week.
In the week before Thanksgiving, Imperfect’s produce box included avocados, turnips, pomegranates, sweet potatoes, squash and hachiya persimmons.
“They are offering a whimsical way to understanding how unreasonable our mainstream produce specifications are,” Mr. Bloom said. “Anyone who has a backyard garden can understand that food grows in fun and funky ways — the notion that it is uniform is just a fallacy.”
Grocery Chain Raley’s to Curb Food Waste by Selling Imperfect Produce - Recipes
Two companies purchase cosmetically imperfect produce from growers and repackage it to sell to households and businesses.
BioCycle February 2016
Imperfect butterfly persimmon Photo courtesy of Imperfect Produce
Among the streams of wasted food in the U.S. is produce that doesn’t make it to market because of cosmetic imperfections. Two new companies, Imperfect and Hungry Harvest, have developed businesses around purchasing and distributing “ugly” produce. In Emeryville, California, Imperfect’s founders Ben Chesler, Ron Clark and Ben Simon, purchase ugly produce from California farms and sell it to consumers for 30 percent off supermarket prices. Hungry Harvest, operating in the mid-Atlantic region, also purchases imperfect produce from growers, and delivers packages to homes and businesses.
Rescuing and distributing edible food was already on Chesler and Simon’s radar. They were cofounders of the Food Recovery Network (FRN), a student-run food recovery group that collects unused food from campus dining halls and donates it to food pantries and shelters (see “Launching A Food Recovery Network,” January 2013). After college, the pair decided to head to California, where roughly half of America’s produce is grown. They teamed up with Ron Clark, who helped develop the California Association of Food Bank’s Farm to Family program. This successful program distributes 125 million pounds of “ugly” produce per year to food banks within California. Clark created a network of about 70 California growers to source the produce for the food banks. Chesler, Simon and Clark joined forces to start Imperfect in the San Francisco Bay Area last year.
Imperfect sweet potato Photo courtesy of Imperfect Produce
In June 2015, Imperfect raised $38,000 through its IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign, which helped finance a 5,000 square foot refrigerated warehouse in Emeryville and get the company up and running. Imperfect works with 20 to 30 farms in and around California. It purchases produce from these farms for .25 to .75/lb to make it worth the farms’ while to harvest the aesthetically-challenged produce. Many of the farms are members of California Food Bank’s Farm to Family program. The produce is packaged in boxes and delivered to home subscribers. It also services offices and other community drop-off points and has a bulk ordering program.
The misshapen produce is picked up from the farms by a variety of contracted trucking companies and produce distributors, and is delivered to the Emeryville warehouse. Often, Imperfect receives produce only a day or two before packaging. “Our operations team inspects the incoming produce, and samples each of the items to make sure the taste, freshness and durability is up to par,” explains Simon. “We then sort through all of the product and either approve it for sale, donation, or composting.” Donated produce is delivered to local partners in the community, mostly the Alameda Food Bank.
Imperfect kiwis Photo courtesy of Imperfect Produce
Subscribing customers can purchase a medium sized fruit-only, vegetable-only, or combined produce box that is 10 to 15 pounds and contains 4 to 7 types of produce for $14 to $16 per week, plus a small delivery fee. For the most part, subscribers receive what is in season, similar to traditional CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription programs. Since January 1, 2016, Imperfect has been offering box customization, its first all-organic box, and a new branded box with recipes. With box customization, customers can select fruits and vegetables for their boxes and the size of the box. Mixed fruit boxes are offered in a variety of sizes from small to extra large, while fruit only or veggie only boxes are offered in small and medium sizes only. Customers can choose an all-organic mixed fruit box for an extra cost. Prices for the medium sized organic box range from $24 to $26 per week.
To date, Imperfect has sold over 130,000 lbs of produce. The company has 1,500 subscribers. Each week, 20 part-time employees deliver produce boxes using their personal vehicles to home and office addresses in Oakland, Berkeley, Albany, Alameda, and Emeryville, and to public pick-up locations in San Francisco, Lafayette and Concord. The company also offers an affordable way for low-income families to get fresh, quality produce for 33 percent off regular prices. And since July, Imperfect has been selling their product to Raley’s, a grocery chain in the Sacramento area, under the “Real Good” name. This pilot is currently under review for expansion.
The Food Waste Crisis
According to a 2021 report by the UN, more than 1 billion tons of food were wasted worldwide in 2019, and this total sum of food waste accounts for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. 18 And while more than a decade ago, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that global food waste was about 1.3 billion tons, the organization had a lack of consumer-level data. The new report reveals that 17 percent of those gargantuan food losses happen at the consumer level around the world — in both developed and developing countries. That includes retail, restaurants, and at home: Home food loss was by far the highest single source of consumer waste, with more than a quarter of the food losses (26 percent) happening in individual households. 19
In the U.S., the waste is more drastic. Americans waste up to 40 percent of our food supply, with more than 30 percent of that food loss occurring at the retail and consumer levels of the supply chain. 20 The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that each person in the U.S. throws away nearly 220 pounds of food a year. Food destined for landfills in the U.S. makes up 25 percent of the food system’s yearly greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And while the EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have joined forces to cut the amount of food waste in America in half by 2030 from its 2015 levels (about 133B pounds or $161B yearly), 22 we have bigger problems.
The worldwide population is expected to grow from 7.6 billion today to 9.8 billion in 2050, increasing food demand by more than 50 percent, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI). To meet that demand, we’d have to find arable land double the size of India to grow enough food. 23 Meanwhile, millions of people worldwide are facing hunger and food insecurity.
Reduce Food Waste
First, we can stop wasting the food we already have. In 2020, Imperfect Foods rescued 52,263,090 pounds of food from lesser outcomes like landfills.
Food Waste in America in 2021
With employees working from home, students learning remotely, and people ordering takeout to support their local restaurants, food bills skyrocketed1 as families spent more time – and ate more meals – at home. In the United States, the surge in food spending often translates to more food waste. Even prepandemic, we wasted massive quantities of food every single day of the year.
Food takes up more space in US landfills than anything else. 17
The Facts About Food Waste
How much food is wasted in America?
Just how much food do Americans waste? Here’s some “food” for thought: While the world wastes about 1.4 billion tons of food2 every year, the United States discards more food than any other country in the world: nearly 40 million tons — 80 billion pounds — every year. 3 That’s estimated to be 30-40 percent of the entire US food supply, 4 and equates to 219 pounds of waste per person. 5 That’s like every person in America throwing more than 650 averagesized apples right into the garbage — or rather right into landfills, as most discarded food ends up there. In fact, food is the single largest component taking up space inside US landfills, 6 making up 22 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW). 7
Globally, we waste about 1.4 billion tons of food every year. 15
Why do we waste so much food?
Before COVID-19, it was estimated 35 million people across America — including 10 million children — suffered from food insecurity. 8 That number is expected to increase to as much as 50 million people9 in 2021 due to the employment drop and financial fallout from the pandemic. With so many people suffering who need basic amounts of food, why do Americans waste so much of their food abundance? Getting to the bottom of what causes food waste in America is a challenge that traverses the complex landscapes of socioeconomic disparities, confusion, and ingrained beliefs, layered with human behaviors and habits. Food spoilage, whether real or perceived, is one of the biggest reasons people throw out food. More than 80 percent10 of Americans discard perfectly good, consumable food simply because they misunderstand expiration labels. Labels like “sell by”, “use by”, “expires on”, “best before” or “best by” are confusing to people — and in an effort to not risk the potential of a foodborne illness, they’ll toss it in the garbage.
More than 80 percent of Americans discard perfectly good food because they misunderstand expiration labels. 19
Compared to the rest of the world, food in the United States is plentiful and less costly, and often this contributes to a general sentiment of not appreciating or valuing it the way other communities around the globe do.
Americans are often impulsive in their food purchases, unrealistically assessing how much food is required, and as a result buying more food than they need or buying food they won’t actually eat.
Our take-out society doesn’t use food in its entirety the way our ancestors used to. We underutilize leftovers and toss food scraps that can still be consumed or composted.
Composting isn’t part of our food-prep routine, so we continue to add fuel to the fire in increasing the sheer size of US landfills.
Americans discard more food than any other country, nearly 40 million tons — or 30-40 percent of the entire US food supply. 16
Changing the laws to curb so much waste
The good news is that several states across the country are taking action to curb food waste and gain food recovery. Legislators in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont have passed laws 11 that restrict the amount of food waste going to landfills. Vermont’s “Universal Recycling Law” went into effect in July 2020, banning food scrap waste entirely. According to the Vermont Foodbank, as a result of the new law, food donations statewide have increased 40 percent.
There is pending legislation in California, Colorado and Massachusetts that would establish programs to fund private-sector composting and organic collection programs.8 In addition, several states like Tennessee and Washington, and cities like Los Angeles and Madison, Wisconsin, have created food waste task forces to reduce waste, creating composting education and infrastructure and eliminating food waste from US landfills.
In 2019, the New York City Department of Sanitation expanded upon their organics separation rules, proposing that even more food-related businesses would be required to separate organic waste in an effort to keep nearly 100,000 tons of wasted food out of landfills each year.
The city and state efforts are trickling into US school systems too — both Maine and Rhode Island have introduced legislation to reduce the amount of food waste in schools. On a national level, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a goal in 2015 to reduce food waste by half by 2030.
Before the pandemic, 35 million people across America had food insecurity. That number is expected to rise to as much as 50 million in 2021. 18
Wasting food has environmental repercussions…
While the food waste movement across America is gaining momentum, it needs to pick up speed to help tackle one of the globe’s most pressing problems: climate change. Wasting food has irreversible environmental consequences: it wastes the water and energy it took to produce it, and generates greenhouse gases — 11 percent of the world’s emissions— 12 like methane, carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons, which contribute to global warming. Food that sits decaying in landfills also produces nitrogen pollution, which causes algae blooms and dead zones. According to the World Wildlife Federation, the production of wasted food in the United States is equivalent to the greenhouse emissions of 37 million cars. If Americans continue on the same path of food loss, the environmental impact could be disastrous.
…and economic repercussions too
If reducing food insecurity and saving the planet aren’t enough to inspire action to reduce food waste, perhaps one more good reason will: money. According to the nonprofit organization Feeding America, Americans waste more than $218 billion each year on food, with dairy products being the food item we toss out the most. The average American family of four throws out $1,600 a year in produce. 10 Multiply that by the typical 18 years that a child lives at home and you could easily pay for a year’s worth of tuition at any number of America’s private colleges or universities.
Wasting food contributes to 11 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. 20
Solving the increasingly growing problem of food waste calls for upstream solutions that dig deep into the root of the problem. The root is complex and multifaceted, with waste coming first from America’s homes (43 percent) and restaurants, grocery stores and food service companies (40 percent), where people throw out food, followed by farms (16 percent) and manufacturers (2 percent), where too much food is produced. 13
Confronting Waste and Solving the Problem at Home
So how do we tackle food waste in America? The challenge isn’t to produce less food, but to waste less in the process. Here’s how we can start:
Don’t misinterpret expiration labels on food that’s perfectly good to eat.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute, and Harvard University have combined efforts to streamline expiration labels about the quality and safety of food. Two phrases simplify how you can tell what’s still good to consume: BEST IF USED BY describes quality “where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to consume”
USE BY applies to “the few products that are highly perishable and/or have food safety concern over time.” 14
Learn how to compost to keep food scraps out of landfills, and the amount of greenhouse gases from rising.
Freeze food that can’t be eaten immediately, but could be consumed at a later date.
Share the wealth.
Donate food to food pantries or deliver leftovers to people who may need it. Plan meals and make deliberate grocery store shopping lists. Fruits and veggies with blemishes and flaws still taste the same and are typically a fraction of the cost. In addition to saving food, you’ll save money in the long run. Embrace imperfect produce.
Plan meals and make deliberate grocery store shopping lists.
Fruits and veggies with blemishes and flaws still taste the same and are typically a fraction of the cost. In addition to saving food, you’ll save money in the long run. Embrace imperfect produce.
Reducing the Waste at America’s Restaurants
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spends more than $3,000 a year on eating out. This not only requires an astonishing amount of plastic packaging and utensils, but it also produces a lot of wasted food. The restaurant industry spends an estimated $162 billion every year in costs related to wasted food. 12 Pioneers in the recycling industry are making great strides, but there is still more we can do to make progress.
Be thoughtful and deliberate when eating out.
Recognize that portion sizes differ and order only what you know will be eaten. If you end up with leftover food – and this happens often with today’s enormous American food portions – take it home to share with someone else or to enjoy for another meal the next day.
If you really want to be environmentally conscientious, bring your own containers to take home leftover food. You’ll be doing your part in reducing the 150 million tons of single-use plastic that we use – and discard – every year. 13
Reconsider the “all-you-can-eat” buffet-style restaurant model — and mindset.
It prompts people to take out more food than they can possibly eat, and that food almost always gets mindlessly thrown out after piling a plate full.
Follow a global model.
Some countries around the world are ahead of America when it comes to managing food waste. France, for example, requires restaurants to donate food that is at risk of being thrown out, but is still safe to eat. Cities in Sweden use food waste to create fuel to power public bus transit. In Denmark, you can use an app to find restaurants and bakeries that are about to close and purchase their remaining food at a fraction of the cost.
Reducing Food Waste in Commercial Businesses
When it comes to food waste, households and restaurants aren’t the only contributors commercial businesses also add to the growing problem.
Fortunately, there are many businesses that are taking notice. Companies are innovating new ways to use food waste as ingredients for other products, setting up food donation plans, or implementing commercial composting programs.
The Real Dill, a Denver-based pickle company, created a Bloody Mary mix out of the cucumber water used in making their popular pickles. Today, the mix is more well-known than the pickles – and the company has an even smaller environmental footprint. Similarly, Wtrmln Wtr is a company that takes watermelons that would normally be thrown out – and eventually end up in landfill – and creates a juice out of the melons. Companies aren’t just creating food and beverage products – some are taking businesses’ food waste and turning it into new products, like Ambrosia who is turning organic waste into a cleaning spray called Veles.
Companies are innovating new ways to use food waste as ingredients for other products, setting up food donation plans, or implementing commercial composting programs.
Transforming food that would otherwise be wasted into an upcycled product is just one way in which commercial businesses can reduce food waste. There are opportunities for commercial businesses to donate unused food like Sodexo has – donating all uneaten food to local communities in need. These are all programs that support the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Food Recovery Challenge (FRC), which asks organizations and businesses to “pledge to improve their sustainable food management practices and report their results.” Finally, companies can also work with their hauler partner to set up programs to make sure their organics are composted rather than sent to landfill.
Similar to how we can prevent food waste at home, it’s about making sure too much food isn’t purchased, redirection (or donation) of unused food that would otherwise be wasted, and, setting up composting programs for food scraps that would end up in landfill.
Food is wasted along the entire supply chain
Farming Food Waste
Approximately 30-40 percent of food that farmers around the world produce is never consumed. 21
Between 21 and 33 percent of water used across US farms is wasted. 22
Food loss at the farm level depends on many uncontrollable variables, including the type and quality of crop, market price and consumer demand.
If there’s no market for a particular crop, it’s better for the environment for farms to plow the crops back into the earth and take a loss before harvesting and packing up food to enter the supply chain. If the crop goes back into the earth, it will help produce better soil for future harvests, but if the food isn’t consumed, it will most often end up in a landfill releasing greenhouse gases.
Manufacturing Food Waste
Human error, including lack of standard operating procedures and poor training, is the main cause of food waste at the manufacturing level, accounting for more than 10 percent of food waste.
Food that is associated with a food allergy, such as peanuts or gluten, is often wasted due to manufacturing lines that need to be run several times to produce an allergen-free product.
New product development creates food waste due to the production processes that manufacturers must go through to coordinate correct volumes and product quality. Grocery Store Food Waste About 30 percent of food in American grocery stores is thrown away.23 US retail stores generate about 16 billion pounds of food waste every year. 24 Wasted food from the retail sector is valued at about twice the amount of profit from food sales. 25
Grocery Store Food Waste
About 30 percent of food in American grocery stores is thrown away. 23 US retail stores generate about 16 billion pounds of food waste every year. 24 Wasted food from the retail sector is valued at about twice the amount of profit from food sales. 25
What is the Food Waste Recovery Hierarchy?
There are many ways to reduce food waste in the United States and around the world — and thanks to the Food Recovery Hierarchy developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we have a tiered system that prioritizes prevention and then diversion of wasted food. Created as an inverted pyramid, the top levels of the Hierarchy are most favorable, trickling down to the last stage of waste sent to landfills. Here’s how the Hierarchy flows:
1. Source Reduction
This goes back to the simple lesson of “only take what you need.” If we buy and create less food, we’ll throw less out. This is about simply reducing waste by not creating it in the first place.
2. Feed Hungry People
Much of the food we throw out is perfectly edible. With 50 million people expected to suffer from food insecurity in 2021 alone, this is unacceptable. Food banks and shelters across the country would welcome the food that many Americans throw away.
3. Feed Animals
Humans aren’t the only ones who need to be fed — our animals need sustenance too. Those food scraps we toss after dinner each night — that will surely end up in a landfill — can be saved for feeding farm animals, diverting more food waste from needlessly being thrown out.
4. Industrial Uses
Did you know that some of the food you toss can be used to create biofuel and bio-products that could power your car? The earth has provided alternative energy in the form of sun and wind. Why shouldn’t our food be yet another way to source power?
Near the bottom of the Food Waste Recovery Hierarchy is something every single person is capable of doing: composting their food waste. Composting not only prevents your food waste from entering a landfill (and creating even more greenhouse gases), but also improves soil and water quality that in turn, help future crops grow.
This is the bottom of the Food Waste Hierarchy — and the last, final resort to the waste that we produce. Avoiding this tier starts with each and every one of us, by preventing waste at the top of the tier — right where it’s sourced and where we can make different decisions about how much we take, buy and create.
Imperfect Foods delivers to "most of the West South Central region, Midwest, Northeast and all along the West Coast," although the most current information from the company appears to be somewhat out of date. For example, groceries for the purposes of reporting this story were delivered to Colorado, which isn't currently listed as an available area on the website. As the company notes, they're "expanding quickly." You can find out if they deliver to your area here. Delivery fees at Imperfect Foods range from $4.99 to $8.99.
Localize & Personalize
Taking a “local” approach to produce has shown amazing results in the restaurant industry. Using hyper-focused personalized marketing techniques, grocers present consumers with effective offers, product recommendations, recipes, and hyper-localized product assortments that have shown to increase sales. Consumers that want “local, fresh, farm-to-table” produce hold local produce in higher regard than they do mass-produced produce, which in turn helps consumers feel a stronger sense of personal responsibility to not waste it. Getting people personally invested with their food will help ensure they are less likely to throw it away and help curb food waste.