The average U.S. food store sends to the landfill more than 1,300 pounds of food waste per employee per year, according to a 2006 study looking at waste management practices typical of different industry groups.
Supermarkets employed about 2.5 million people in 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. That means about 3.25 billion pounds of food waste from supermarkets was sent to the landfill in 2008, or the weight of more than 200,000 elephants.
“Right now, the supermarket mindset is to always have more than enough. And, if that’s the case you’re always going to have stuff that you’re throwing out, or hopefully donating or composting,” says Jonathan Bloom, author of “American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food.”
There are things we as consumers can do to help our local grocery stores cut back on sending food to the landfill. Even changing our shopping habits and expectations can make a difference.
1. Urge your supermarket to donate to a food bank
“We grow food to feed people. It’s pretty simple. Let’s get the excess food to people who need it,” says Bloom. Most supermarkets donate food, but it’s a question of what kinds of food and how often. For example, breads, and in-store cupcakes and muffins are often donated.
“Which are not really the healthiest foods, which are not what we need in terms of getting hungry people the right kinds of nutritional items,” he says.
Grocery stores may not be inclined to donate more nutritious food like produce, meat, dairy and cheese. They may worry about a lawsuit when donating these more perishable foods. However, the 1996 U.S. Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects supermarkets from liability when donating food and grocery store products to non-profit organizations for distribution to those in need.
Alfalfa’s Market Inc. in Boulder, Colo., for example, donates some fresh produce items and excess orders of frozen meat to local food banks that the managers don’t think will sell by the expiration date.
“And, that’s a huge thing because supermarkets throw away so much meat. They just have excess inventory,” says Sonja Tuitele, communications personnel for Alfalfa’s Market Inc.
Despite the Food Donation Act, some grocery stores still may be hesitant to donate more food items in general, because they don’t want shoppers to be discouraged by how much food they are giving away, Bloom says. As a shopper, you can show local supermarkets that you support the donation of more food of all kinds, and begin the process by contacting a local food bank.
2. Don’t be quick to judge a food by its label
Although there are some foods we need to be cautious with, it’s generally true that food labels — especially “sell by dates”— are an indication of quality, not safety, says Martin Bucknavage, the senior food safety extension associate at Penn State University.
“It’s hard to make really clear lines between what’s good and what’s not good. So, we try and come out with some basic parameters that you can work with,” he says.
We generally want to stick by expiration dates, especially with baby food where there can be nutrient loss, Bucknavage explains. But, we have more leeway with “sell-by” and “best-if-used-by” dates. Stores generally try to get rid of all foods nearing their sell-by date, because generally those foods won’t sell. Yet, a customer can still get a lot of value out of products beyond the sell-by date.
Food in glass jars, like balsamic vinegar, and packaged food, like cereal can last months — sometimes years — beyond the sell-by date. However, use more caution if you buy items like sliced deli meats, poultry, and seafood, on, or close to the sell-by date, Bucknavage says. Freeze these items, or use them immediately.
Check out stilltasty.com for more information on how long your “favorite food and beverage” will stay “safe and tasty.”
3. Jump on the sales
Often supermarkets will discount food items nearing their sell-by date, or items the supermarket has an excess of, says Bucknavage.
“That’s a perfect situation that works well for everyone,” says Bloom. The store gets a little more revenue than they otherwise would, you reap the benefits financially and the store isn’t throwing out as much.
During the last few hours that Alfalfa’s Market Inc. is open, for example, the supermarket sells the bread baked that day for half price.
“So, it’s still high quality baked fresh in the store, but for a fraction of the price,” Tuitele says.
Buying discounted items and being outspoken to store leadership is one way to get your supermarket to have items on sale and produce less food waste.
4. Shop thoughtfully
Contamination is another reason supermarkets have to throw out food. Consumers can help to reduce waste by minimizing contact and cross contact.
Look at prices before you bag up two pounds of peaches, or before you request the pasta salad from the prepared foods department. Because it may contaminated, anything that a shopper bags and does not buy is likely to be thrown out. Supermarkets opt for safety.
“You have to be careful,” says Bucknavage. “Don’t damage the product when you’re in the store.”
A product with the label ripped off, refrigerated items placed in a non-refrigerated section, and misplaced produce are all items that are likely to be thrown out. Also, try to avoid cross contact of foods and serving utensils used in self-service bars. At a salad bar that serves nuts, for example, there is the potential for allergen contamination.
5. The inconvenience of self-service bars
Ensuring that food from the self-service bars is eaten is especially important. Due to state and local health codes, food from hot bars and salad bars cannot be donated, even under the U.S. Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.
Additionally, food from the self-service bars can’t be repurposed by the prepared foods department, and meats and oils can’t be composted. So, food from hot bars and salad bars is highly likely to end up in the trash at the end of the day. Also, some supermarkets do not allow their employees to eat the food from the hot bars after the store is closed to customers.
Consider letting your supermarket know you would rather have less “prepared food options” at the end of the day and that you would rather see the employees eat the food than see the food get dumped in the trash.
Alfalfa’s Market Inc., for example, lets their employees enjoy food that can’t be donated, or repurposed as an “employee meal.”
“If we know it’s something that we’re going to throw away, we’d rather have our employees sample it and try it and get to know all the food, so they can better communicate with our customers than throw it in the trashcan,” Tuitele says.
6. Choose imperfection
Damaged egg cartons, bruised apples, out-of-season labels and other “imperfect goods” are likely to be cast aside.
“It has nothing to do with the food itself. It’s just superficiality,” says Bloom.
Buying those “quirky items” will communicate to the store manager that appearance doesn’t have to trump taste when it comes to food, Bloom explains.
Additionally, suggest that your supermarket’s prepared foods department use those imperfect items. For example, Whole Foods Market looks at the produce that may not sell and creatively comes up with recipes, says Kate Lowery, communications personnel for Whole Foods Market.
“So, if it’s not the most beautiful apple you’ve seen there may be another treatment for it, there may be another use for it.”