Measuring Food Waste 

Some grocery stores throw away tons of edible food, while others do a great job donating it or selling food that's past its sell-by date at a discount. See our scorecard.

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Berkeley's Whole Foods' Marketing Team Leader Lizzie Brimhall reported that her store donates bruised produce and day-old baked goods to local nonprofits such as McGee Baptist Church, the UC Berkeley Student Housing Center, and Ohana Community Outreach on a daily basis and frequently gives food to the Daily Bread, an East Bay grassroots, volunteer-run organization that delivers surplus food to local free-food kitchens and homeless shelters. "We have a lot of excess food, but it has to be pretty bad for us to throw it in the compost," Brimhall said. "Any food scraps or spoiled produce that is left over is given to a couple of local community members who raise goats and chickens." However, we found that the dumpster at this Whole Foods store contained a lot of edible food, including a top round steak — an ethical lightning rod among food waste activists because of the amount of food and energy it takes to produce beef.

"It always horrifies me to find meat in the dumpster," said Yotam, the dumpster diver. "We're putting huge amounts of resources and labor into raising an animal, and slaughtering it is justified if the creature gets eaten. But killing an animal and throwing it away?" For Yotam, the Whole Foods steak epitomizes the obscenity of America's food waste problem.

Like Whole Foods, Berkeley Natural Grocery on Gilman has a good record of donating surplus (14,000 pounds of edible items went to the Alameda County Community Food Bank last year), but its dumpster was still full of surprisingly fresh organic produce, including kale, Romaine lettuce, oranges, tomatoes, mushrooms, and dozens of bunches of basil.

Joining these stores in the two-star category were Walmart, Target, Save-Mart, and the Safeway stores in the Bay Area that participate in Feeding America, an umbrella organization for two hundred food banks around the country that establishes daily food giveaway programs with big grocery chains. Giving away unsellable food is a charitable tax write-off if the food is tallied and reported by a nonprofit service organization. Because this tax benefit provides more money than the stores can save in compost bin rebates, it makes financial sense for them to donate the food. Together with other area stores, these chains donated 608,721 pounds of food in the first quarter of this fiscal year to the Alameda County Community Food Bank. "The Feeding America program is good because it sets up an official channel and offers recording and reporting for tax deductions," explained Coberg of the food bank.

However, despite these stores' sizeable charitable contributions, local dumpster divers told us their waste receptacles regularly include large quantities of edible food.

In an effort to address the tripartite problem of food waste, hunger, and poor nutrition, Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe's, is launching a new grocery store next year in Massachusetts that will repurpose ugly-but-edible foods and sell them at a deep discount in a low-income Boston neighborhood. The store, called Daily Table, will amount to a direct attack on how most grocery stores operate, and will put affordable food into the carts of those who need it most.

"It's an incredible idea," said Frasz of FoodShift. "We need to find more ways of creating economic benefit and jobs out of wasted food."

But resistance to dealing with food waste is strong — even in the liberal Bay Area. Mary Risley, founder of San Francisco-based Food Runners, which transports donated food to area homeless shelters, said she has repeatedly approached many grocery stores in the region to offer her free service — which would reduce the stores' food waste — only to be refused without explanation.

Some stores only donate old bakery items or shy away from donating altogether because they are afraid of being held liable if someone gets sick from their food. But the federal "Good Samaritan Act," signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, immunizes persons from liability who donate food that they believe in good faith is safe for consumption. "No one has ever gotten sick from our donated food," Risley added.

As grocery rescue program coordinator for the Alameda County Community Food Bank, Coberg sets up relationships with grocers to capture the overflow foods before they are thrown out. Although the idea of grocery rescue has developed only over the past five to ten years, most Bay Area food banks have a position dedicated to connecting with stores. Coberg routinely educates grocers about the Good Samaritan Act, and once they learn of it, they often end up donating meat, produce, and dairy products. "I'm able to get beautiful, prepackaged lettuce and spinach, of which the quality and freshness is still good another four or five days, and the same goes for milks, cheeses, and yogurts, which are also safe several days after their posted date," she said.

Coberg works with both retail donors participating in the Feeding America program, such as Target, Walmart, and Save-Mart, along with the food bank's member agencies, to ensure safe food handling practices for all meat, dairy, and produce. Meat that likely won't sell, but which has been inspected for quality and freshness, is frozen and picked up by volunteers who deliver the donations to the food bank's member agency, which typically serves it that afternoon or assembles grocery bags of items to give to families. "This makes a huge difference to our community because protein sources are so hard to come by," Coberg said.


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