November 27, 2019

Preventing Grocery Store Food Waste at Thanksgiving

Written by Garret Weigel | Food Safety, Supply Chain

During the holiday season, Americans throw out 25% more trash than the rest of the year. As you can imagine, Thanksgiving is the holiday triggering the highest percentage of food as part of this waste. If this year mirrors past statistics, we will collectively discard 35% – or 204 million pounds – of edible turkey meat. More than 150 million pounds of potatoes, green beans and other vegetable sides will find their way to the trash bin. And an estimated 14 million pounds of dinner rolls will be dumped into landfills.


The Impact of food waste during Thanksgiving

The Impact of food waste during Thanksgiving. Source:


Imagine not just the sheer size of those numbers, but what that waste is doing to our environment: a million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 800,000 car trips from New York to San Francisco; 200 gallons of water per person down the drain; habitat loss and threats to wildlife, just to name a few.


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How Grocery Stores Contribute to Thanksgiving Waste

Although domestic households are responsible for 40% of wasted Thanksgiving food, grocery stores influence what shoppers buy, and therefore indirectly contribute to over-purchasing. Yes, stores will increase sales with all kinds of promotions, but they may pressure consumers to buy more food than they need to feed their guests. All this really does is shift the burden of disposing excess food to customers.


Of course, shoppers are grateful for any savings they can get over the expensive holidays – that will never change. But to avoid waste, it’s a better strategy to build savings into per item costs, rather than bulk purchasing, which thereby encourages huge portion sizes. This sales approach only affirms the truism: “eyes too big for our stomachs.”


Many billions of pounds of produce are wasted because fruits and vegetables don’t meet overly strict standards for size, shape, or color. Now consider how this produce is actually used in the kitchen and presented at the table. It’s typically chopped, mashed or pureed: guests will never know what the produce looked like raw before cooking.


Food waste from farm to fork

Food waste from farm to fork. Source:


Another issue is that many companies don’t keep accurate data about how much food is wasted throughout their operations. If so, how can you know how big the problem is, when it’s most severe, and how to find effective ways to address it? By getting a grasp on holiday food waste, store management can start to make adjustments to the flow of inventory.


For supply chains, the peak of peak seasons comes right before Black Friday. With so many turkeys, potatoes, pumpkins, and cranberries being moved around the country so quickly, errors and accidents are bound to happen that can waste otherwise perfect inventories. Taking responsibility for waste along the entire supply chain – not just inside your own individual company – is more and more significant by any conscientious supply chain manager.


Simple Best Practices to Help Prevent Waste

Of course, some food waste is inevitable, despite best intentions. But with some brainstorming and ingenuity, store managers and employees can knock heads together to come up creative ways to reduce waste and recycle leftover Thanksgiving inventories.


Some options simply require partnering with organizations that do the work for you, such as compost companies that recycle leftovers or emergency food pantries that accept donations. Assigning proactive employees to oversee these partnerships is a good use of their time and lets them take on new responsibilities to learn new skills that can help them earn promotions.


As for “ugly produce,” progressive grocers increasingly provide space for special bins to sell insightly fruits and vegetables at discounted prices. Since imperfect fruits and vegetables are often cheaper, stores can pass cost savings onto customers and retain a profit at the same time. Even more cost effective, packaging pre-peeled and chopped produce will not only save ugly food, but time for the consumer – who is more than willing to pay a higher price for having such tedious kitchen work done in advance for them.


Finally, grocery stores can help their customers plan holiday meals that minimize food waste. For instance, Kroger has a special section on its website offering Thanksgiving tips that include making an accurate shopping list based on planning ahead for portion sizes. Even simpler would be printing a tips flyer that shoppers can pick up on their way inside the store, or placed in the meat and produce sections.


The Food Waste Reduction Alliance

The Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA) – a joint project of the Food Marketing Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and the National Restaurant Association – is “an industry-led initiative focused on reducing food waste by increasing food donation and sending unavoidable food waste to productive use (energy, composting) and away from landfills.”


The FWRA has published best practices to help food manufacturers, retailers, and restaurants to reduce food waste. These guidelines encourage companies to conduct waste assessments to understand how to best dispose of their excess inventory, from waste management to hunger relief. Such assessments can be applied to any type or size of store, and help management categorize and quantify the types of foods that typically go to waste over the Thanksgiving holiday.


This data is valuable in three key ways:

  1. It allows you to create a baseline to measure progress over time.
  2. It identifies areas to reduce or avoid the generation of the waste.
  3. It identifies areas to reuse, recycle or otherwise find value in those materials outside of landfills.


The real value the FRWA offers is the perspective of industry – as they say, “compiled by companies for companies.”


National Food Waste Reduction Goal

To complement industry efforts, the federal government has announced a national food waste reduction goal that calls for a 50% reduction by 2030. To reach this goal, the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will partner with public organizations, the private sector, and local governments to reduce food waste. The primary aim of the initiative is to improve food security, conserve natural resources, and maintain sustainable practices. If reached, the goal will reduce landfills, diminish harmful methane emissions that fuel climate change, conserve natural resources, and protect the planet for future generations.


Given all this industry and government support, Thanksgiving is the perfect time for grocery stores to double down on their commitment to fight food waste with increased accountability and customer support that doesn’t focus on excess.


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