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Fighting food waste can present a major market opportunity for the grocery sector, not to mention crucial benefits for all sectors of society. One way grocers can take advantage of this opportunity is to partner with organizations and startups that can help them use innovative strategies and technologies to recycle and up-cycle unsold inventory. In this post, we take a look at some of the most promising partners eager to get you started.
While supermarkets dispose of millions of tons of food each year, in 2017 the USDA estimated that 15 million American households had difficulty providing meals for all their members. In most cases, supermarket food waste is edible, tasty and nutritious. So why don’t more supermarkets donate to food banks? Especially when “Feed Hungry People” is the second tier of EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy?
Food recovery hierarchy. Source: https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/food-recovery-hierarchy
According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, 56% of large food service companies reported that concerns about liability kept them from donating food. But experts say they shouldn’t be so worried. According to Nicole Civita, director of the Food Recovery Project, no public record exists of any retailer in the United States being sued because of harm related to donated food.
If that’s not enough reason to start donating, even better is the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act that protects companies from civil and criminal liability should a recipient get ill or hurt as a result of consumed donated food. Donors are culpable only in cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct.
Even better? Many local food banks will pick up food donations free of charge, saving you warehouse storage and disposal costs. Not to mention that grocers can reap tax benefits for donating food. See Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic’s Tax Deduction for Food Donation, a Legal Guide for more information.
Your first step toward donating should begin with Feeding America, a national organization working with the food industry to divert and gather food before it goes to waste. This leader in the arena of emergency food distribution has developed ways to gauge demand from individual food banks, safely ship food over long distances, and keep food fresh longer once it arrives at a food bank.
One of Feeding America’s newest innovations, MealConnect, is a technology platform that makes safe and quick food donations possible by matching food businesses directly to the organization’s network. Local retailers can use MealConnect to alert nearby food banks, food pantries or meal programs when they have food ready for immediate pick up. MealConnect is free and easy to use, and fits into any store’s existing operations.
In addition to MealConnect, the following organizational websites provide tools that allow managers to search for food banks, pantries, soup kitchens and shelters that may be interested in accepting surplus inventory:
As just one example of a food donation success story, Kroger has significantly reduced food waste with its Perishable Donations Partnership. Through this program, the supermarket chain donates produce, meat, eggs and dairy products to local food banks with the capacity to safely handle and distribute fresh food. Working in tandem with its food safety experts, Kroger continuously looks for opportunities to add new categories of fresh product that can be donated each year.
Fresh foods are more difficult for supermarkets to manage than packaged foods. Fruits and vegetables especially can spoil quickly and lack expiration date coding. Their taste and freshness also vary from season to season, especially when imported, which means customers may avoid them if low in quality.
Even at the largest chains, fresh food inventory is typically measured merely by eyeballing and freehand calculations. As a result, U.S. grocery stores throw out 8% of their fresh food, which is a serious detriment to the bottom line.
Today, new companies are offering the grocery sector a variety of solutions to help them avoid surplus inventory. Here are a couple of startups recently making the business headlines:
Afresh is startup that uses computer technology to help store managers figure out just how much produce to order for their shelves. CEO Matt Schwartz founded the company in 2016 after years of observing the food industry's inefficiencies from the inside (he was particularly inspired by the fate of rotten bananas).
Afresh approaches the problem of excess inventory with mobile technology and algorithms. All store staffers need do is simply input their inventory each day into the Afresh tablet, and the patented algorithms calculate just how much of each product they should order and when. The goal is to help reduce spoilage while also ensuring that the store stocks enough supply to meet demand.
Quest is a waste management and sustainability firm that finds new ways for supermarkets to reduce their food waste on a sustainable scale. The company conducts waste audits to help managers differentiate what their employees are actually recycling versus throwing away, and then provides guidance on ways to recycle the unwanted surplus.
Quest also saves grocers money by finding people and companies that will use or recycle cardboard, plastic, and even cooking oil. What about waste that is inedible for human consumption? Quest makes sure it can get composted or upcycled into animal feed.
It’s a shame to discard an apple or a cucumber simply because, superficially, it is cosmetically imperfect. Grocery stores can partner with companies that offer several different solutions to merely throwing our imperfect produce.
Misfit Foods offers a financially sustainable solution based on “value-added” processing of “ugly” produce into products that can re-enter the food supply chain—perhaps once again landing back on supermarket shelves. Founded in 2015, the company launched their concept by transforming “ugly” fruits and vegetables into bottled juices.
More than 9 million tons (25 Empire State Buildings) “ugly” produce is wasted in the U.S. every year. Full Harvest rescues unwanted fruits and vegetables through the first B2B marketplace where grocers can connect with food companies to offload surplus or imperfect produce. Buyers of these so-called “wonky” goods can save up to 40% compared to traditional distributors.
Imperfect Produce sells unwanted fruits and vegetables to consumers at below retail prices directly to their door by using an online subscriptions service. Its seasonal menu changes weekly and is priced at 30% to 50% less than grocery store prices. Shoppers in 10 U.S. metropolitan areas can choose organic or conventional produce, all vegetables, all fruit, or a mix of both. An alternative to foodbanks, Imperfect Produce claims to have saved more than 18,000 tons of food to families on a tight budget.
It’s pretty amazing what technology can offer grocers to help them monitor the quality of fresh food. Check out these companies using science to keep foods in the bin or refrigerator case rather than in the dumpster.
Manufacturers have been waxing fruits and vegetables to improve their shelf-life since the 1920s, but Apeel Sciences has taken the concept to new levels. The startup’s invisible, bio-based coating is edible, made from wasted agricultural products like leftover grape skins from wine production Apeel’s coating can extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables by an amazing 500%. This is an especially promising technology that could massively cut vegetable food waste in supermarkets, restaurants, and homes.
This is how a strawberry will age without and with Apeel’s coating:
Infratab is a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) label that records freshness over the life-cycle of a product and can be used by producers, transporters, and retailers. For example, if a fruit is stored in conditions that exceed temperature limits, the label will send an alert that the product is likely to spoil faster than normally expected. The technology ensures that grocers are selling their food at peak quality.
Intended for longer term fruit storage, Hazel Technologies invented little sachets that prevent over-ripening. Distributors and warehouse managers simply toss a Hazel sachet into a box of fruit. Over a three-week period, the sachet releases a safe plant hormone that slows down the ripening process. Given that around 45% of all fruit grown is wasted, this kind of simple solution that allows more time for produce to get to the market could have a huge impact on food waste reduction.
If you think these methods to reduce food waste are ingenious, stay tuned for an upcoming post about mobile apps that put the power of food sustainability right in your own hands.
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