Where does food go when sell-by or expiration dates take it off of the shelves?
There I was on a Saturday afternoon in one of Santa Cruz’s many natural foods markets, awaiting the arrival of my vegetarian sandwich. My pangs of hunger quickly turned to confusion as I watched an employee behind the counter dutifully unwrap plastic-wrapped sandwiches and deposit the wrappers in the recycling and the seemingly edible sandwiches in the compost bin.
‘How could this be?’ I thought, wondering if I could ask for one of the discarded sandwiches instead of the fresh one I had just ordered. Nearly one in four Santa Cruz County children are struggling with hunger according to Second Harvest Food Bank (SHFB), which has seen annual rises in need for food assistance each year since 2005. Was this routine of tossing unsold food really a part of the store’s sustainability mission?
The fact that this incident took place in an establishment that touts its environmental ethic was even more perplexing to me. While recycling the packaging and composting leftovers is a responsible method of handling waste, I had to wonder why good food was being wasted in the first place. So often, particularly in the sustainable food mecca that is Santa Cruz, the emphasis lies in where our food comes from. Less often considered, though, is the fate of that food when it doesn’t end up going through the checkout line.
Is it health codes that prevent this food from going to empty stomachs? Is it bureaucratic red tape that makes it too complicated for stores to donate? Or do stringent expiration dates offer too small a window for donation to be practical and efficient?
As it turns out, a whopping 40 percent of the food we produce is destined for the trash can. This is according to author Jonathan Bloom, whose 2010 book “American Wasteland” delves into the dirty details about waste in America.
“In the U.S., food is so abundant,” says Bloom. “We produce twice the amount of calories we need per person per year. Given that, it’s not a huge surprise we turn around and waste almost half of what we eat.”
Bloom says that a lot of that waste is due to a feedback loop between consumers and grocery stores, which are responding to their customers’ presumed preferences. Nowhere is that more evident, Bloom says, than in the deceiving properties of sell-by and expiration dates.
“There’s a growing superficiality that the appearance [of food] often trumps taste,” Bloom says. “The rise of TV shows and glossy magazines makes it so that we demand perfect looking food, and stores perceive this demand and act upon it. They throw out food that doesn’t look perfect and say it’s because that’s what the customer wants.”
Bloom says the dates that can be found on nearly all food in the grocery store are printed on a sliding scale— “sell by” being the least stringent, followed by ”best by,” then “use by.”
According to Andrew Strader, an inspector with Environmental Health Services who inspects restaurants and grocery stores in Santa Cruz County, all of these dates are self-imposed by stores and manufacturers on their own products.
“There isn’t too much regulation dictating when they have to throw things out,” Strader says. “Most of them are just use-by dates, not ‘absolutely cannot be consumed after’ dates. It’s more of a quality control kind of thing rather than any kind of a health hazard.”
Adam Smith, the executive coordinator of design and construction for Whole Foods Market, says that the chain, which is known for its high quality goods, maintains strict standards when it comes to imposing these dates.
“We do testing at a regional kitchen to determine how many days a product will meet our quality standards,” Smith says. “It’s an internal process to determine what that sell-by is and we are very stringent about that.”
In addition to the lack of regulation dictating how long a store can sell an item, there is also very little restriction on what items a store can donate to nonprofits and food recovery agencies.
The Emerson Good Samaritan Act was passed in 1996 to “encourage the donation of food and grocery products to nonprofit organizations for distribution to needy individuals.” The act largely frees stores of any liability if a recipient gets sick from their donated food, except in cases of gross negligence.
According to Strader, grocery stores may donate any packaged shelf goods in addition to dairy, meat and produce, even beyond the date printed on the package. The only restriction is on food that has been in contact with store customers (i.e. a salad bar or hot food bar), because the store cannot ensure it has not been tainted.
SHFB, which was founded in 1972 as California’s first food bank, facilitates a store donation program in Santa Cruz County. Through donations from local stores and corporate chains such as Target and CVS, Second Harvest distributes 7.2 million pounds of food annually to needy people and smaller food agencies throughout the county.
One such agency, the California Grey Bears, donates 50,000 pounds of food each week to 3,500 recipients, many of which are elderly or housebound individuals. Executive Director Tim Brattan says that the Grey Bears receive donations from all major markets, including Safeway, Whole Foods, New Leaf Community Markets, and Trader Joes.
Brattan believes that food collection programs are increasingly efficient, and that stores are generally very willing to donate food they no longer want to sell to food recovery agencies.
“More and more I think the systems are getting into place to have the food used,” Brattain says. “There are better ways than just going to the compost or the recycling.”
According to Smith, Whole Foods takes several steps to reduce its environmental impact in the realm of waste. In addition to donations to local agencies, each location implements composting, whether or not the facilities already exist in the region, and utilizes sub-par produce and fresh food that cannot be donated by turning it into something else.
“We don’t have a lot of waste,” Smith says. “As we move into a smaller neighborhood business model, less waste is a byproduct of our stores getting smaller … and [having] distribution systems that are more regional and local.” After this extensive look into the world of supermarket waste, I realized that perhaps the sandwich incident led me to jump to premature conclusions. While stories of dumpsters full of perfectly good food aren’t unheard of, it seems that both food recovery agencies and grocery stores are committed to tackling the problem of waste on a systematic level, at least in Santa Cruz County.
But this desire to donate isn’t always there in other parts of the country, says Bloom. In preparation for his book, Bloom worked in the produce section of a North Carolina supermarket.
“When I was working at the supermarket it was really up to the manager of the store and sometimes they don’t feel like bothering,” he said. “It's easier for grocers to just throw food out—it's the path of least resistance. Donating requires a little effort on their part and some coordination with the collecting nonprofit.”
Bloom says that this attitude results in just a “thimble-full” of available food actually being recovered. He hopes that as more stores see the environmental benefits of not simply dumping food and recognize that the law does not hold them liable for donated goods, this amount will increase.
In addition, dumpster diving, guerrilla giving, and free-boxes are all methods that individuals and waste-conscious retailers are implementing in addition to food recovery programs. But Bloom hopes that food recovery efforts can continue to improve in efficiency and that a more systematic solution can be reached.
“There are other options so you don’t have to throw that food into the dumpster,” Bloom says. “I don’t think any human should have to dig through the trash to get something to eat.”
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