Are Supermarkets the Key to Destroying Food Waste?

supermarket food waste

It’s time to get to the bottom of food waste in America. Forty percent of food in the U.S. is thrown out every year, despite the fact that one in seven households is still struggling to buy food. We can make efforts at home and in restaurants, but the surprising saving grace when it comes to tackling the problem of food waste once and for all may be an unlikely suspect: supermarkets.

Supermarkets can actually be blamed for much of the food waste problem currently plaguing our country. With the 1950s departure from individual shops selling one apple or a quarter pound of beef to the convenience of mega-stores peddling shrink-wrapped packages of too much food at a discounted price, widespread consumption and subsequent food waste took hold in our culture — and it didn’t stop there.

Today, the retail food market is responsible for the waste of a full 10 percent of the available food supply in the U.S., according to the USDA. In 2010, supermarkets tossed out a whopping 43 billion pounds of food — that’s enough to feed 21.5 million Americans for a year.

But in 2016, supermarkets may just be the key to resolving the problem of food waste, for the simple reason that changes in our supermarkets have a ripple effect throughout the market. What a grocery store decides to sell, farmers must provide, and shoppers must purchase. Such was the case of the cage-free egg phenomenon last year. While restaurants making the commitment certainly made a dent in the problem, it wasn’t until Walmart announced its decision in April to transition to cage-free eggs by 2025 that the movement had reached a major victory. David Coman-Hidy, executive director at animal welfare nonprofit The Humane League, called it “the closing argument on the era of battery-cage confinement.”

The next battle to tackle in the same fashion appears to be food waste: luckily, the battleground is already primed, and the U.S. continues to have Europe to look for inspiration.

First came the “ugly” fruit and vegetable movement, which began in France in 2014. Chain Intermarché vowed to sell misshapen and “inglorious” fruits and vegetables at a discounted price, and the French gobbled it right up. Earlier this year, Whole Foods started doing the same thing in America, quickly followed by Walmart. An estimated six billion pounds of fruits and vegetables are wasted every year in the U.S. just because they are ugly, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. So, the more supermarkets to adopt this method, the more produce will be salvaged.

Still in France, the French Senate unanimously voted to ban supermarkets from throwing away expired food in February, instead requiring the stores to either compost or donate it. In March, Italy passed a similar law, and America may soon be ready for its own version of this legislation. The Food Recovery Act, which protects grocery stores from being sued if food donated to food pantries and food banks makes recipients ill, was introduced in the House of Representatives in December and in the Senate in June. Meanwhile, individual donation programs are still going strong in the U.S., with initiatives like the Food Rescue Alliance allowing volunteers to recuperate expired food from supermarkets and bring it to those in need.

As for what the future holds, if our neighbors across the ocean are any indication, there may be even more developments on the horizon.

Denmark, which is the nation with the most initiatives against food waste in the EU, opened a food waste supermarket in February, a surplus store and charity that sells produce at 30 to 50 percent less than normal supermarket prices. While the market is opened to the needy, anyone who is concerned with food waste is welcome to shop there.

In the UK, meanwhile, a move was made by the Sainsbury’s chain in July to reduce waste of one very specific item: bananas. The chain found that people didn’t want to buy perfectly good bananas because the skin was spotted… so they began salvaging them to make banana bread and selling it in their bakery aisle in select shops, publishing the recipe online so that customers who shopped at Sainsbury’s without fresh baked goods could give it a go too.

These are only some of the many options for the next step in tackling food waste — the only question is which one to attempt first.

Related on Eco Salon
Fruit Leather Handbags: Reducing Food Waste in Style
John Oliver Brilliantly Schools Viewers on Food Waste [Video]
American Food Waste is Bad… Really Bad [Video]

Supermarket image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.