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Business Solutions That Help Cut Food Waste  November 22, 2021 – 10:16 am

As much as 40 percent of food grown in the United States for human
consumption is wasted. Source: Eivaisla

After decades of wasteful food practices, where perfectly good food is discarded even as poverty keeps many families hungry, solutions are starting to come together from food retailers, farmers, academics, policy makers, and social service organizations.

“We’re seeing a movement to rethink what we are doing as a food industry and as consumers, ” says José Alvarez, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School who was once CEO for Stop & Shop markets. “We’re trying to find ways to take the food that supermarkets and manufacturers and farmers can’t sell, recover it, and give it to people who could use a donation or reduced price meal. We are also trying to reverse decades of misguided thinking about what constitutes safe, consumable food.”

“There are millions of pounds of delicious, nutritious food that is just plowed under every year”

Alvarez was a facilitator during a conference in June at Harvard Law School on the topic Reduce and Recover: Save Food for People. The conference included seminal figures in the movement, such as Dana Gunders of the Natural Resources Defense Council, author of the white paper Wasted; Emily Broad Leib of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, co-author with Gunders of The Dating Game; and Tristram Stuart, author of the book Waste.

The issue is more than just an academic subject for Alvarez. An immigrant to the United States, his mother passionately reinforced at her dinner table the message of not wasting food. It was clear that other family members in their mother country weren’t enjoying food abundance.

So, combatting the wasting of food has become something of a crusade for Alvarez. At the conference, leaders from a range of fields discussed how to remedy the fact that up to 40 percent of the food grown in the United States for human consumption is wasted, even as about 15 percent of US households are considered “food insecure, ” meaning they lack reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.

As a produce buyer early in his career, Alvarez would visit farms after they had been picked over for the best fruits and vegetables to be sold in stores and was astounded at the amount of edible food that was rejected.

“If you could get consumers to go to a farm to see what the fields look like after the perfect product gets picked, they would be sick to their stomachs at all of the perfectly good food left behind, ” he says. “There are millions of pounds of delicious, nutritious food that is just plowed under every year.”

In recent years, that has started to change.

Conference attendees discussed organized efforts to collect and put to good use food that would otherwise be discarded. For example, voluntary gleaners are visiting farms to gather produce that had been rejected as too imperfect to sell in regular stores, so the food can be donated. And tech experts are creating computer applications that allow farmers, retailers, manufacturers, and food wholesalers to connect with organizations that accept and distribute food that would otherwise get tossed.

Food waste solutions

Alvarez has written several case studies, including a 2012 piece about the former president of Trader Joe’s and a fellow at Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative: Doug Rauch: Solving the American Food Paradox. The case was co-authored by Ryan Johnson, research associate with the Global Research Group.

Rauch came up with one solution: In June 2015, he opened Daily Table, a not-for-profit grocery store in Dorchester, Massachusetts that works with growers, supermarkets, manufacturers, and other suppliers who donate or offer special buying opportunities for their excess food. The store then sells the food at significantly reduced prices from what is charged by grocery and convenience stores—in many cases, half the price—allowing families to eat healthier even on a tight budget.

Open for a little more than a year, the store is thriving—and it may be the first of many like it to come, says Alvarez, who joined the board of the organization after writing the case.

A key decision for Rauch was to sell the food at low cost rather than simply hand it out for free at food shelters.

For many people accepting handouts is embarrassing, Rauch says. “They want to provide for their family in a dignified manner. Retail, because the customer holds the power of the purse, gives the power to the shopper and builds a more dignified exchange into the relationship.”

In addition to produce, bread, and other grocery items, Daily Table operates a large commercial kitchen with executive chef Ismail Samad, whose team prepares healthy “grab-and-go” meals, including chicken, fish, beef, and vegetarian entrees, as well as a variety of soups, chili, smoothies, and salads. (Entrees typically cost $1.99 to $3.99; a large basic salad is $1.49, and a large salad with a cooked protein is $2.99.) Ready-to-eat meals have proven popular because many people in the community use public transportation as they juggle multiple jobs and have little time to cook.

Recently, the organization did a study to understand whether a family on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—formerly known as the Food Stamp Program—could make it through the month eating at Daily Table. The results showed that Daily Table is likely the only place in the United States where it is possible to do so.

“One of the key things Doug understood after meeting with community groups was that just providing the ingredients wasn’t enough, ” says Alvarez, noting that Dorchester has one of the highest obesity rates in Massachusetts. “It’s helping the community find an easy and affordable way to feed themselves, and it’s having a huge impact.”

Alvarez, who spent 20 years in the retail food industry, looked for his own solutions to the food waste problem as chief executive of Stop & Shop from 2006 to 2008, where he oversaw $16 billion in sales. One thing that irked him: Store food displays were too big, which meant a lot of food was wasted, particularly perishables including seafood, meat, and produce.

“It was all about pile it high, make it look beautiful, and watch it fly out the door.”

But a day later, he would observe, 10 pounds of food had been sold, but another 20 pounds remained, touched by numerous shoppers and left wilting under the lights. “I looked at it and said, there’s a lot of waste here. What can we do?”

Staging with smaller amounts of food was a start. Alvarez and his team took a numbers-based approach, putting out for display only the approximate amount of food the store was likely to sell that day. This allowed managers to order what was needed for the day with any oversupply stored safely in boxes and refrigerated to keep it fresher longer.

“If you’re going to sell half a box, only show half a box, ” was the idea, he says. “Within 18 months of implementing this new process, we were saving $100 million a year in wasted food and the costs associated with handling and disposing of it.”

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Part of the food waste problem also lies in our quest for marketing perfection, Alvarez says.

“We’ve created a really high bar for what’s acceptable to be marketed and eaten by humans, ” he says. “The apple that you see in the store has to be the perfect apple.”

He puts it this way: If you start with the premise that grocery store displays always have to be full and always have to look perfect, employees eliminate a product that doesn’t look right, throwing it into the compost heap. That drives similar behavior in warehouse and packing house workers. It goes all the way to the person who picks the fruit and passes over many slightly imperfect pieces, concerned that compensation won’t come from fruit that’s on the edge.

“You wind up with a system that drives waste all the way through, ” Alvarez says. “So we’re trying to get the industry to think about: Can we have ugly produce—carrots with an extra leg—when we’re used to the perfect carrot? In nature, carrots come out in different ways. Nature isn’t perfect.”

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