Diversity in food choice at our local grocery stores is hitting a new threshold. Fully stocked shelves of abundant fruits and vegetables, looking vine ripe fresh and available during off growing seasons, have become the norm. High visual standards and choices are what American consumers have come to expect, and those expectations are coming at a price.
According to the EPA, 40% of food waste that ends up in the landfill doesn’t come from households’ refrigerators or platefuls of uneaten food. It comes from food that never makes it into a consumer’s cart. Food near expiration dates, blemished or awkwardly shaped produce often don’t meet the expectation of picky consumers and will never complete the fork- to-table cycle.
The luxury of fine food contributes to thin profit margins and strong competition in the grocery market industry. Consumer demand informs grocery store outlets to maintain high standards, which to perhaps, the common sense side of us, may seem unrealistic at times. Expected none the same, the abundance has a flip side; the reality of more food destined to waste streams, and the high costs associated with overfilled waste containers.
There are laws in a handful of states restricting compost waste from landfills. Those jurisdictions are leading the way in composting solutions. Unfortunately, the remaining bulk of edible food is currently the largest contributor to US landfills, creating leachate and methane gas, one of the largest contributors to climate change. Costs associated with growing, shipping, landfills, leachate and methane add up to an unsustainable outcome for the food we seek to sustain us.
What can grocery stores do to decrease food waste before it arrives to US tables? The EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy provides some structure in approaching unused food management.
The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act provides protection to groceries to fulfill the highest best use of edible food to benefit others. With some ground work, local, edible food donations can reach avenues in need, and when not available, other preferred options can be explored.
Eventually, the decrease of excess food from the store shelf to the waste bin will ultimately slow down the flow of discarded food. Yet, how do we do that? Educate the consumer? Adjust expectations of perfection and availability? That is a tall task in a culture that every day expects more and diverse options held to the highest of standards. As more grocery outlets tackle the challenges in food waste, more solutions will become readily available. It will take a multi angled approach from grocers, growers, and ultimately customers to find the sweet spot between choice and sustainability.
Melinda Caldwell, Via Analytics