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How the Top 5 Supermarkets Waste Food

In a nation where millions go hungry, some of the food supermarkets throw out could feed people in need. But not every grocery chain cares.

Unemployment. Health care. The national debt. So many social issues take a lot to fix: experts, money, and lots of time. To add to a growing list of social issues, here’s another: 1 in 7 American households has trouble putting food on the table at some point during the year, according to a recent USDA report.

But in a nation where so many go hungry, a possible solution has emerged.

Grocery stores have lots of foods that need to be taken off shelves daily: stock that needs to rotate, surplus food like bananas that are starting to have brown spots, or refrigerated items that need to move for the new product coming in. Food products make up 63 percent of a supermarket’s disposed waste stream, according to a California Integrated Waste Management Board industry study. That’s approximately 3,000 lbs. thrown away per employee every year. The stores can’t sell the food, so they toss it in the compost or garbage.

Organizations and an army of volunteers -- called “food recovery” groups -- are stationed around the country, ready to transport that food from the stores to the people that need it most. Meats that are close to the sell-by date, for example, can be frozen and good for several more months.

If only it was that simple. 

While most food retailers participate in some kind of food donation program, many stick to things like breads, cakes, and dented cans, while throwing away fruits, vegetables, meats, and other perishable food most needed by the hungry. 

"Liability” and "bad press" are the oft-cited reasons food retailers give for not donating perishable food, but they're not good ones, say food recovery advocates.

President Clinton signed the Bill Emerson Federal Good Samaritan Food Donation Act in 1996, designed to protect those establishments and individual donors from criminal and civil liability, should any recipients become ill from food donation. State laws have been in place long before that which protect donors and encourage donation. None of the laws have ever been challenged. 

The federal law protects all donations made in good faith. The only exception is “gross negligence” or intentional misconduct -- the plaintiff would have to prove that the company or individual, in donating food to the needy, was intentionally and knowingly engaging in conduct that was likely to harm another person. But realistically, what homeless person or shelter is going to sue for food poisoning?

“Bad press” is another poor excuse. Would shoppers really view a grocery chain as “bad” when, in the noble process of rescuing food from landfills, one needy person (or more) fell ill? Likely not.  

Food recovery programs do take some time, energy and investment. But they're not impossible operations. Chains like Albertsons lead the way in training employees to hold food for local partners in the community rather than indiscriminately tossing foods that may be safe for consumption. 

Arlene Mercer, founder of Long Beach-based food recovery organization Food Finders, says she sees a growing willingness among grocery stores to donate. “During this economy people are recognizing there is a food crisis,” she says, adding that the agencies Food Finders serve report a near-quadrupling of need from prior years.

Here they are, from best to worst: how the five largest food retailers in the U.S. handle perishable food waste.

1) SuperValu Inc. (Albertsons, Lucky)

Albertsons was the first food chain to start a formal perishable food recovery program. In its “Fresh Rescue” program, each store partners with a local community organization to receive the food. Each store has one or two employees trained and designated to work with partner agencies.

“Stores have been doing it on their own for a few years now but we wanted to find a way to pull it all together,” said Lilia Rodriguez, a spokesperson for Albertsons. “It’s eggs, cheese, milk, fruits – and it’s those products that are really hard for food banks to get a hold of. Non-perishables are usually what they get.”

Rodriguez said that in addition to helping the community, it improves employee morale.

“The employee that helps knows they’re doing their part in the community,” she said. “They know the shelter or church around the corner it’s going to.”

As for the fear of liability, Rodriguez noted the Good Samaritan protections and added that, “Most but not all [agencies] have refrigerated trucks. If they don’t, we ask them to cover the food with thermal blankets for the 15 or 20 minute drive to the agency. We want to make sure it gets there safely.”

Albertsons has also provided refrigerated trucks to some of its partner organizations.

“When it comes to feeding people, there’s no competition,” Rodriguez said. “Number one, it’s the right thing to do. Number two, one of our top initiatives as a company is the fight against hunger. We feel like, if we don’t do it, who will? It isn’t about cost-impact. It’s about doing what’s right. And ultimately, it helps our customers.”

2) Ralphs Grocery Company