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What's more, about half of all food wasted is fresh produce — the fruits and vegetables missing from the typical American diet that, if consumed in greater quantities, would help slow our rising rates of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Dana Frasz, founder of the nonprofit group FoodShift, which works to reduce food waste in the Bay Area, noted that an immense volume of good food from local grocers could be used to feed area communities in need, but instead, it's usually just heaped into the compost bin. Frasz also pointed out that there is even an incentive for many Bay Area grocers to put lots of compostable matter in green bins because doing so allows the business to get discounted waste disposal rates.
Many grocers, meanwhile, believe that giving away surplus food might undermine their profitability or cheat their paying customers. Consequently, they rarely seek publicity when giving away inventory, and don't admit to throwing out food. Instead, grocers often encourage customers to donate food or money to local food relief organizations.
Whole Foods Market, for example, operates a national program called Feed4More in which shoppers can donate to feed a family of four: $5 for breakfast, $10 to provide lunch or dinner, or $25 for a whole day's worth of meals. Similarly, during the holiday season, Andronico's urges shoppers to buy prepared bags of food at checkout registers that go right into food bank collection bins. These are great programs that have a big impact on food charities, but they also perpetuate the notion that these stores are doing all they can to stop hunger in their communities. In reality, a lot of edible food still goes out their back doors straight into dumpsters.
To compile our grocery food waste scorecard, we analyzed three criteria. First, we asked stores if they offer day-old bread, nearly-expired packaged foods, and wilting produce at a discount — a practice that entices customers to buy food that's just past its peak of freshness. Second, we talked to local food banks and food rescue organizations to learn which area grocers regularly give away their surplus food, and which have declined to do so. Third, we checked a sample of store dumpsters in a mission that divulged the true practices of the store, revealing how much more it could — and should — be donating.
We then designed a rating system, with stores receiving a score of one to three stars. We gave a rating of one star to stores that wasted the most food, while grocers that wasted the least received three stars.
Ranking the lowest on our scorecard with a rating of just one star, Mollie Stone's Markets and Mi Pueblo Markets consistently did a poor job of reducing food waste or of giving away surpluses to food charities. And while Costco does donate fresh inventory to community groups, we found no record of the warehouse chain giving bruised produce or food that was past its sell-by date to local food charities. Representatives from Grocery Outlet declined to provide us with any information, and the stores' dumpsters were teeming with wasted food.
Bi-Rite Market topped our list with three stars, because it has implemented comprehensive food waste practices in every department of the store and aggressively donates its surplus organic produce and artisanal food to area charities. The store's management prevents wasteful overflow by purchasing only what is needed, a practice reinforced by the store's very limited shelf space. Bi-Rite's Community Coordinator Shakirah Simley said that surplus food is sent to the deli or creamery to be converted into prepared foods or staff meals. "If we have too many ripe concord grapes, they will be turned into organic popsicles," she said. Anything left over is advertised on CropMobster.com, a new social platform that publishes instant alerts from local farms, food sellers, and producers in order to connect them with food charities and individuals in need.
Discounting the price of food that is blemished or past its sell-by date rather than donating or tossing it makes sense both from a business and waste-reduction perspective. Berkeley Bowl's two stores lead the pack in this area, earning three stars on our scorecard. The stores regularly put post-peak produce into 99-cent bags that sell out fast. And, considering their dumpsters contained very few items relative to other stores, this strategy appears to prevent excessive waste.
Andronico's earned two stars on our scorecard. The small chain sometimes partners with FoodStar to offer flash sales of imperfect produce to shoppers who sign up to receive FoodStar smartphone alerts. Marketing Manager Bridget Kwok said that Andronico's also bags up about-to-spoil groceries and offers an 80-percent discount on the bags. "If there are leftovers from that," she said, "we reach out to the [food] banks."
Yet despite these efforts to reduce waste, an examination of the store dumpster in Berkeley revealed a whole pumpkin pie (our fuel for the nighttime mission), boxes of edible squash, dozens of heads of lettuce, and lots of baked goods still in their packaging. We also discovered that Andronico's has repeatedly declined to donate surplus to at least one highly regarded food redistribution charity.
Trader Joe's also received two stars because each store links up exclusively with charities that get all of its perishables. The store on Lakeshore in Oakland, for example, gives six to twelve bags of food every day to the First Assembly of God, which then redistributes the food to the needy. However, much food from this store is still wasted — in fact, it's known in the dumpster-diving community for its bounty of packaged foods.
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