Reducing food waste is the very definition of a no-brainer. Yet despite the explosive growth of food-assistance organizations like food banks over the past several decades, a higher percentage of American families experience episodes during which they can't afford to buy food today than ever before, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Moreover, an estimated 40 percent of all food produced in the United States — the equivalent of $165 billion worth — goes to waste each year.
Dana Frasz is all too aware of these disturbing realities. She's the founder of the Oakland nonprofit Food Shift, whose aim is to develop unique solutions to reducing food waste. Frasz believes that businesses need to shift their thinking when it comes to the value of recovering and reusing edible food that might otherwise end up in the garbage. "There is more pervasive hunger than ever before," she said. "I don't want to bad-talk food assistance programs, but we need to do more. Something isn't working."
Frasz noted that the vast majority of organizations involved in reducing food waste are largely or entirely volunteer-run. Our food waste "problem" Frasz said, is actually an opportunity to employ people. "We pay for trash removal," she pointed out. "Why not food [removal]?"
Edible food, after all, is a more valuable resource than bottles and cans, she said — but we've yet to develop a formal system to manage unused food, like we do with municipal waste. In San Francisco, for example, the long-running organization Food Runners picks up fifteen tons of food a week from restaurants, caterers, grocery stores, farmers' markets, and other businesses. But despite redistributing enough food for 3,000 meals a day, Food Runners has just two full-time staffers — a volunteer coordinator and a truck driver — and one part-time bicycle courier. "They provide a massive service to the city, and they're doing it [essentially] for free," she said.
One local grocer is stepping up to the plate in terms of monetizing the recovery of usable food. (Our December cover story, "Measuring Food Waste," detailed at length which local grocers are doing a better job than others in making use of food that is past its "sell by" or "use by" date.) After nearly a year of negotiations, Andronico's Community Markets is "nearly ready" to sign an agreement hiring Food Shift to manage the recovery and redistribution of food that is still edible but is currently being thrown away at its five stores, Frasz said. Andronico's will pay Food Shift to oversee having a driver pick up and drop off the still-usable food. Frasz said she plans to hire a driver from a low-income background for the Andronico's partnership.
Food Shift is in the process of raising money to buy its own vehicle, which would ideally be refrigerated. In the meantime, the nonprofit is continuing to work with the St. Vincent de Paul center of Alameda County, which has its own vehicle, driver, and storage space. Food Shift will also be implementing an in-store food waste awareness campaign, including educational workshops, modeled after the United Kingdom's successful government-sponsored program "Love Food Hate Waste," which was launched by a nonprofit in 2007 and has since reduced "avoidable food and drink waste" by 21 percent.
According to Chad Solari, director of produce and floral at Andronico's, the local supermarket chain began implementing a two-part program to reduce food waste in early 2013. One half of the program involved displaying produce that would otherwise most likely have been thrown out — because it was physically imperfect or past its prime — at a reduced rate on a specially designated rack in the produce department. Solari acknowledged that while that strategy might work for some retailers, it didn't appeal to Andronico's' customer demographic. "Our customers are not looking for that [particular] kind of value," he said.
At the same time, Andronico's began salvaging surplus produce (that happened to be smaller or larger than what customers have come to expect) directly from farmers — food that, remarkably, would otherwise be tossed into a landfill. That produce is now sold in large bins located in front of the stores. "It's an extraordinary deal," Solari said. "We don't try to make money off it, but it enables people who wouldn't normally be able to buy produce to be able to afford it."
Solari said partnering with Food Shift to manage all of the grocery store's food waste, including dairy and meat, will ultimately reduce how much the store itself is throwing out, which is a "bigger problem." "We have a conscience. Our customers are interested in more than just buying and selling. We hope to build trust with existing customers and maybe even attract new customers as well, who know they are dealing with the most socially progressive retailer they can. We serve our community and we think they would like this," Solari said. "In fact, we know they would."
In the future, Frasz envisions redistributing food recovered from grocery stores in a variety of different ways, like setting up a low-cost market in West Oakland and by cooking chutneys, jams, and sauces. Until then, Food Shift will give the food recovered from Andronico's to St. Vincent de Paul. "In each phase, we need to figure out how to generate revenue in order for the model to be sustainable," she said. Food Shift is also in the process of creating a pricing menu for its services because the nonprofit has been experiencing a lot more demand for its work as of late.
"We want to lift people out of poverty through this program," she said, noting that her organization intends to hire more employees from low-income backgrounds. "Hopefully it can be used as a model and expanded."