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Issues related to food waste have increasingly edged toward the front of the industry’s consciousness over the last several years. And although we are all complicit in this travesty of wastefulness, retail grocery bears a particular burden on this front. Not only is wasted food an intrinsic burden on global society—as so many people, even in our own neighborhoods, go hungry—but it negatively affects the bottom line.
Although it’s common practice at some grocery banners to make use of fresh foods poised to go south—in prepared foods, for instance—many supermarkets have more food waste than they know what to do with. So it goes to just that. Waste.
Let’s get back to those hungry folks in our own neighborhoods. Many grocers likewise recognize the pressing need of hungry area citizens, and donate just-expired bread and other products (that are still perfectly safe to eat) to area food banks and other nonprofits positioned to help. My church makes such runs every week, picking up donated products from grocery stores and dropping them off in needy neighborhoods.
Such efforts help—a little. Grocers (and growers, processors, foodservice, consumers, etc.) still waste a tremendous amount of food. People still go hungry. Food deserts, often without a decent grocery store for miles, languish in struggling, largely urban, areas. And all the while, a tremendous amount of food is wasted, going from grocery store to incinerator or landfill. Recent estimates put the total amount of food wasted around the world each year north of 1 billion tons—food that would easily satisfy every hungry soul on the planet if they could only get their hands on it.
As this situation has gained traction in the industry, and overall media, nonprofit groups have risen to the occasion, collecting food that would otherwise go to waste, striving to find some worthwhile use for it. It was, of course, only a matter of time before some enterprising individual would structure a bona-fide business around this situation.
Enter Daily Table. Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s, is galvanizing a startup that will take food that would otherwise go to waste and create tasty—and supremely affordable—store branded meals for sale in underserved urban areas. When speaking to NPR earlier this week, he called the concept “kind of a hybrid between a grocery store and a restaurant,” offering speed-scratch-cooked meals (affordable nutrition) for sale at hard-discount prices, low enough to compete with fast food. He’s starting this initiative (under an umbrella he calls the Urban Food Initiative) in Boston and will move forward from there. The space will reportedly also include a teaching kitchen so people can learn how to create simple, healthful meals at home. Also in the sales mix will be chopped, packaged vegetables (again, likely under a banner brand), and just-expired milk for as low as $1 a gallon according to a Boston Globe article from earlier this year.
This is a great idea—particularly for supermarket companies looking to fill a hard-discount banner slot, or diversity existing such banners—but only if people can get over the “muffin stump” aspect (as satirized on “Seinfeld”). The concept will be easier to swallow across the board if the news about misconceived perceptions about product expiration dates gets out (see the recent Harvard/NRDC report for more on that issue).
Every retail grocer needs to analyze how to best minimize food waste—not only for the betterment of the bottom line, but for the benefit of all mankind.