The issue of food waste hit home for journalist Jonathan Bloom in 2005, when he volunteered at D.C. Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that feeds hungry Washington, D.C.-area residents with food grocers and restaurants would otherwise toss. This experience made him realize perfectly good grub could be salvaged.
Bloom then made it his mission to educate nationwide about the magnitude of food waste—and how to limit it—through his book, American Wasteland (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2010), his Wasted Food blog and his ongoing speaking engagements. Here, Bloom shares his thoughts for retailers.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: Why does so much food get wasted in the U.S.?
Jonathan Bloom: There’s a sense of perfectionism that seeps into our consciousness in that we want food to look just so. If anything is wrong—shape, size, color or, God forbid, there’s a small blemish—an item will be tossed aside. Appearance trumps taste. But sometimes the best-tasting foods don’t look beautiful. Ugly food is tasty too.
NFM: How can retailers curb food waste?
JB: A large portion of retail food waste comes from items passing their sell–by dates. These foods are usually edible, just not sellable. As a food approaches its date, discount it to try to move it before it ends up in the compost bin or, worse, the trash. You could have an entire discount rack where you place imperfect items such as misshapen fruit or dented boxes of cereal.
This lets shoppers put perfectly good food to use while saving a buck. It’s a win-win for everyone. Or you can always donate this food to nonprofit food banks.
NFM: What about repurposing or reusing these foods within the store?
JB: That’s another very effective strategy. Take those “ugly” foods right away and use them in the juice bar or to make prepared items. Cook with foods that are past their sell-by dates. Turn a pack of blueberries into blueberry pie or older spinach into Spanakopita. You can also put these foods into the salad bar because they’re still perfectly good.
NFM: But then there’s the issue of leftovers from salad and hot-food bars.
JB: Self-serve bars are tricky because you can’t donate the uneaten food, so they do create a good amount of waste. Wind down your hot–food and salad bars at night rather than keeping them fully stocked until closing time. This might upset one customer who comes in one minute before close, but the benefits of reducing waste are greater.
Plus, most shoppers should understand and can get behind the idea of not squandering food. Just be upfront about it. Explain proactively via signage or tell people who ask that you wind down your self-serve offerings to avoid throwing so much away. You can also serve leftovers to employees. Set them out in the break room or let staff take them home.
NFM: How can retailers encourage shoppers to not waste food?
JB: Use a financial incentive—paying by the pound for the deli, meat counter and self-serve bars is a nice way to reduce waste. Also offer a choice of portion sizes, such as bowls and cups for soup, small and large plates for entrées and salads, and whole and half sandwiches in your grab–and–go cases.