Five Ways Supermarkets Can Really Win at Reducing Food Waste

It’s time to hold some of the biggest waste offenders accountable

Photo by Sydney Rae

Food waste is taking a toll on the environment, the economy and the fight against hunger. That’s why April has been named “Winning on Reducing Food Waste” month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration are teaming up to reduce food waste.

While that’s a step in the right direction, the government’s lack of specific actions still lets the biggest food-waste offenders, especially grocery stores, off the hook. One big problem is the government’s message of “feed people, not landfills.” By the time food is wasted it’s too late to prevent environmental impacts.

Food production uses 25 percent of all fresh water consumed, 13 percent of the total carbon emissions and 80 million acres of farmland. 40 percent of the food produced in the United States goes uneaten — costing more than $200 billion each year.

While food donations may provide temporary relief and positive public relations, they don’t solve poverty or the lack of accessible, affordable healthy food options at the root of the hunger crisis. In fact, 1 in 7 Americans suffers from food insecurity according to the USDA’s own data.

Whether food waste ends up in landfills or is turned into donations, the result is still an unjust food system with a heavy environmental footprint.

Real solutions to food waste and food insecurity must prevent the problems before they happen. That’s why the government needs to be specific about policy recommendations. Businesses that serve or sell food are responsible for 40 percent of food waste in the United States, with grocery retailers accounting for more waste than restaurants or food-service providers.

Supermarkets influence food production from farms to shelves. Unfortunately, many companies aren’t using this influence effectively. A 2018 report by our organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, found nine of the 10 largest grocery companies fail to track and publicly report their total food waste. And while most stores have food-donation programs, only some are making a specific, public commitment to wasting less food.

Here are five ways the government should push grocery stores to address food waste:

1. Transparent Tracking: Winning means getting real about the magnitude of the problem. Supermarkets that track and report their food waste, like Ahold Delhaize, know exactly how much is wasted and are publicly accountable for reducing it. All supermarkets should do the same.

2. Company Commitments: Leaders in U.S. grocery retail, like Kroger, have committed to “zero food waste by 2025.” The government should urge the industry to make specific, time-bound commitments to eliminate waste throughout the supply chain rather than focusing on diversion.

3. Supply Chain Changes: Grocers can reduce food waste before produce gets to stores by purchasing whole crops from suppliers to prevent produce from rotting in the fields. They can also — like ALDI — use technology to reduce waste caused by over-ordering.

4. Imperfect Produce: The inter-agency strategy mentions using “ugly” produce — like bruised fruit — in salsa. But the industry needs policy, not just new recipes. This requires revised cosmetic standards across all stores with public data on the volume processed and sold.

5. Shopper Support: Walmart remains a leader when it comes to in-store efforts to reduce food waste. The company is improving stocking, standardizing date labels, and educating associates and shoppers. The government needs to compel the whole industry to prevent food waste rather than pushing the problem onto consumers. This can be done by eliminating promotions like buy-one-get-one schemes.

Winning on Reducing Food Waste builds off a 2015 federal commitment to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030. Its strategy includes increasing consumer education as well as addressing date labeling. Yet our food system still needs greater accountability, commitment to specific policies throughout the supply chain, and detailed strategies across sectors to make winning at reducing food waste a realistic goal.

These strategies must do more than pay lip service to the problem. To win at reducing food waste, supermarkets should be front and center in specific agency recommendations. They’re the gatekeepers for what food makes it from farms to shelves and into our homes, and they hold the key to food waste prevention.

Jennifer Molidor is the senior food campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.