Just past midnight on a recent Wednesday, the half-moon hovered over Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland where waste bins had been put out on the street for pickup the next morning. Two homeless men shuffled down the sidewalk as we peered into the green bins in front of the Arizmendi bakery. We found several whole pizzas, bags of old bread, and slices of yam that didn’t make it into a pie. My companion, Yotam, is experienced at rummaging through commercial garbage bins — he wore latex gloves, a headlamp, and dark clothes. He offered the pizzas to the homeless men, and when they declined the food, he placed everything that he salvaged into a milk crate.
From there, we headed to the Trader Joe’s across the street, and then on to several other East Bay grocers to see what could be harvested from their dumpsters. It was an abundant night. Over the next four hours, almost every dumpster we checked outside of food stores — from the Walgreen’s on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley to Grocery Outlet on Broadway in Oakland — contained dozens of meals’ worth of fruits, vegetables, baked goods, meat, dairy, and packaged foods that, with a bit of cleaning and preparing, could be consumed safely.
“You can always count on finding organic fresh food in dumpsters,” said Yotam, whom the Express has agreed to not identify by his full name. Along with dozens of other resourceful Bay Area residents, Yotam has been able to satisfy all of his food needs for months on end simply by skimming off of these grocery green bins.
Our excursion verified the unconscionable paradox of food waste: despite rising hunger rates in the nation and the Bay Area, a great deal of food that is perfectly good to eat simply goes to waste. Some groceries are making a better effort to address this imbalance than others, but there has never been any measurement of accountability for wasted food.
As a result, we decided to assemble a scorecard in an attempt to hold grocers accountable for their surplus food. In our investigation, we found that San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Market was the top shop for minimizing waste at all points in its supply chain, while the original Berkeley Bowl did a successful job of selling off surpluses before they hit the garbage bins. Grocery stores that still need improvement include Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, Safeway, Save-Mart, and Target, all of which have relationships with food banks and charities and have recently increased their donations. Andronico’s, too, has begun to responsibly manage its waste. At the bottom of our scorecard are stores like Mi Pueblo, Mollie Stone’s, Costco, and Grocery Outlet, which all regularly discard large amounts of food.
For most institutional food purveyors, wasting food is business as usual. At the beginning of the food cycle, farmers often grow too much food because they’re worried that storms, drought, or pests will destroy their surplus and put them out of business. Distributors then add to the waste by refusing produce that is already ripened or misshapen, understanding that retailers and consumers expect perfect food. Store managers then waste even more food by overstocking shelves with produce in an attempt to lure customers with an abundant-looking display, and thus causing the bottom rows of product to spoil.
“Our standards as a consumer are so crazy high,” said Sue Coberg, who runs the grocery rescue program at the Alameda County Community Food Bank. “There are [store] regulations in place about how much red needs to be on an apple for it to be sold. Bananas won’t be bought if they have a little bit of brown.”
Indeed, every dumpster we inspected while putting together our scorecard had bruised apples, brown bananas, and loose lettuce leaves, enough good produce for gallons of smoothies, buckets of salads, and racks of banana bread, if only someone could have received the food when it was taken off the shelves.
Use- or sell-by dates are another big contributor to the nation’s food waste problem. A report released by the National Resources Defense Council this fall assessed date labeling laws nationwide, concluding that most use- or sell-by dates are misleading because they have nothing to do with when food is safe to eat – rather they typically indicate when food is at its peak freshness. Yet 90 percent of consumers nationwide believe that food goes bad around the sell-by date. As a result, grocery stores and consumers regularly throw away massive amounts of food that is still edible. In fact, an estimated 40 percent of the American food supply is wasted.
The waste also creates greenhouse gas emissions, blocks up our landfills, and costs us $165 billion each year. And the problem is getting worse: Wasted food has doubled nationwide since the mid-Seventies.
Yet even though we produce more than enough food to feed everyone, there are more people going hungry in the United States each year. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 49 million Americans don’t know where their next meal will come from and don’t get enough calories in their daily diet. Even in wealthy cities like San Francisco, one in four residents struggles to get enough nutritious food to support his or her basic health. According to a 2013 study by the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality, low-income residents of San Francisco miss about 74 million meals a year.
What’s more, about half of all food wasted is fresh produce — the fruits and vegetables missing from the typical American diet that, if consumed in greater quantities, would help slow our rising rates of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Dana Frasz, founder of the nonprofit group FoodShift, which works to reduce food waste in the Bay Area, noted that an immense volume of good food from local grocers could be used to feed area communities in need, but instead, it’s usually just heaped into the compost bin. Frasz also pointed out that there is even an incentive for many Bay Area grocers to put lots of compostable matter in green bins because doing so allows the business to get discounted waste disposal rates.
Many grocers, meanwhile, believe that giving away surplus food might undermine their profitability or cheat their paying customers. Consequently, they rarely seek publicity when giving away inventory, and don’t admit to throwing out food. Instead, grocers often encourage customers to donate food or money to local food relief organizations.
Whole Foods Market, for example, operates a national program called Feed4More in which shoppers can donate to feed a family of four: $5 for breakfast, $10 to provide lunch or dinner, or $25 for a whole day’s worth of meals. Similarly, during the holiday season, Andronico’s urges shoppers to buy prepared bags of food at checkout registers that go right into food bank collection bins. These are great programs that have a big impact on food charities, but they also perpetuate the notion that these stores are doing all they can to stop hunger in their communities. In reality, a lot of edible food still goes out their back doors straight into dumpsters.
To compile our grocery food waste scorecard, we analyzed three criteria. First, we asked stores if they offer day-old bread, nearly-expired packaged foods, and wilting produce at a discount — a practice that entices customers to buy food that’s just past its peak of freshness. Second, we talked to local food banks and food rescue organizations to learn which area grocers regularly give away their surplus food, and which have declined to do so. Third, we checked a sample of store dumpsters in a mission that divulged the true practices of the store, revealing how much more it could — and should — be donating.
We then designed a rating system, with stores receiving a score of one to three stars. We gave a rating of one star to stores that wasted the most food, while grocers that wasted the least received three stars.
Ranking the lowest on our scorecard with a rating of just one star, Mollie Stone’s Markets and Mi Pueblo Markets consistently did a poor job of reducing food waste or of giving away surpluses to food charities. And while Costco does donate fresh inventory to community groups, we found no record of the warehouse chain giving bruised produce or food that was past its sell-by date to local food charities. Representatives from Grocery Outlet declined to provide us with any information, and the stores’ dumpsters were teeming with wasted food.
Bi-Rite Market topped our list with three stars, because it has implemented comprehensive food waste practices in every department of the store and aggressively donates its surplus organic produce and artisanal food to area charities. The store’s management prevents wasteful overflow by purchasing only what is needed, a practice reinforced by the store’s very limited shelf space. Bi-Rite’s Community Coordinator Shakirah Simley said that surplus food is sent to the deli or creamery to be converted into prepared foods or staff meals. “If we have too many ripe concord grapes, they will be turned into organic popsicles,” she said. Anything left over is advertised on CropMobster.com, a new social platform that publishes instant alerts from local farms, food sellers, and producers in order to connect them with food charities and individuals in need.
Discounting the price of food that is blemished or past its sell-by date rather than donating or tossing it makes sense both from a business and waste-reduction perspective. Berkeley Bowl’s two stores lead the pack in this area, earning three stars on our scorecard. The stores regularly put post-peak produce into 99-cent bags that sell out fast. And, considering their dumpsters contained very few items relative to other stores, this strategy appears to prevent excessive waste.
Andronico’s earned two stars on our scorecard. The small chain sometimes partners with FoodStar to offer flash sales of imperfect produce to shoppers who sign up to receive FoodStar smartphone alerts. Marketing Manager Bridget Kwok said that Andronico’s also bags up about-to-spoil groceries and offers an 80-percent discount on the bags. “If there are leftovers from that,” she said, “we reach out to the [food] banks.”
Yet despite these efforts to reduce waste, an examination of the store dumpster in Berkeley revealed a whole pumpkin pie (our fuel for the nighttime mission), boxes of edible squash, dozens of heads of lettuce, and lots of baked goods still in their packaging. We also discovered that Andronico’s has repeatedly declined to donate surplus to at least one highly regarded food redistribution charity.
Trader Joe’s also received two stars because each store links up exclusively with charities that get all of its perishables. The store on Lakeshore in Oakland, for example, gives six to twelve bags of food every day to the First Assembly of God, which then redistributes the food to the needy. However, much food from this store is still wasted — in fact, it’s known in the dumpster-diving community for its bounty of packaged foods.
Berkeley’s Whole Foods’ Marketing Team Leader Lizzie Brimhall reported that her store donates bruised produce and day-old baked goods to local nonprofits such as McGee Baptist Church, the UC Berkeley Student Housing Center, and Ohana Community Outreach on a daily basis and frequently gives food to the Daily Bread, an East Bay grassroots, volunteer-run organization that delivers surplus food to local free-food kitchens and homeless shelters. “We have a lot of excess food, but it has to be pretty bad for us to throw it in the compost,” Brimhall said. “Any food scraps or spoiled produce that is left over is given to a couple of local community members who raise goats and chickens.” However, we found that the dumpster at this Whole Foods store contained a lot of edible food, including a top round steak — an ethical lightning rod among food waste activists because of the amount of food and energy it takes to produce beef.
“It always horrifies me to find meat in the dumpster,” said Yotam, the dumpster diver. “We’re putting huge amounts of resources and labor into raising an animal, and slaughtering it is justified if the creature gets eaten. But killing an animal and throwing it away?” For Yotam, the Whole Foods steak epitomizes the obscenity of America’s food waste problem.
Like Whole Foods, Berkeley Natural Grocery on Gilman has a good record of donating surplus (14,000 pounds of edible items went to the Alameda County Community Food Bank last year), but its dumpster was still full of surprisingly fresh organic produce, including kale, Romaine lettuce, oranges, tomatoes, mushrooms, and dozens of bunches of basil.
Joining these stores in the two-star category were Walmart, Target, Save-Mart, and the Safeway stores in the Bay Area that participate in Feeding America, an umbrella organization for two hundred food banks around the country that establishes daily food giveaway programs with big grocery chains. Giving away unsellable food is a charitable tax write-off if the food is tallied and reported by a nonprofit service organization. Because this tax benefit provides more money than the stores can save in compost bin rebates, it makes financial sense for them to donate the food. Together with other area stores, these chains donated 608,721 pounds of food in the first quarter of this fiscal year to the Alameda County Community Food Bank. “The Feeding America program is good because it sets up an official channel and offers recording and reporting for tax deductions,” explained Coberg of the food bank.
However, despite these stores’ sizeable charitable contributions, local dumpster divers told us their waste receptacles regularly include large quantities of edible food.
In an effort to address the tripartite problem of food waste, hunger, and poor nutrition, Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, is launching a new grocery store next year in Massachusetts that will repurpose ugly-but-edible foods and sell them at a deep discount in a low-income Boston neighborhood. The store, called Daily Table, will amount to a direct attack on how most grocery stores operate, and will put affordable food into the carts of those who need it most.
“It’s an incredible idea,” said Frasz of FoodShift. “We need to find more ways of creating economic benefit and jobs out of wasted food.”
But resistance to dealing with food waste is strong — even in the liberal Bay Area. Mary Risley, founder of San Francisco-based Food Runners, which transports donated food to area homeless shelters, said she has repeatedly approached many grocery stores in the region to offer her free service — which would reduce the stores’ food waste — only to be refused without explanation.
Some stores only donate old bakery items or shy away from donating altogether because they are afraid of being held liable if someone gets sick from their food. But the federal “Good Samaritan Act,” signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, immunizes persons from liability who donate food that they believe in good faith is safe for consumption. “No one has ever gotten sick from our donated food,” Risley added.
As grocery rescue program coordinator for the Alameda County Community Food Bank, Coberg sets up relationships with grocers to capture the overflow foods before they are thrown out. Although the idea of grocery rescue has developed only over the past five to ten years, most Bay Area food banks have a position dedicated to connecting with stores. Coberg routinely educates grocers about the Good Samaritan Act, and once they learn of it, they often end up donating meat, produce, and dairy products. “I’m able to get beautiful, prepackaged lettuce and spinach, of which the quality and freshness is still good another four or five days, and the same goes for milks, cheeses, and yogurts, which are also safe several days after their posted date,” she said.
Coberg works with both retail donors participating in the Feeding America program, such as Target, Walmart, and Save-Mart, along with the food bank’s member agencies, to ensure safe food handling practices for all meat, dairy, and produce. Meat that likely won’t sell, but which has been inspected for quality and freshness, is frozen and picked up by volunteers who deliver the donations to the food bank’s member agency, which typically serves it that afternoon or assembles grocery bags of items to give to families. “This makes a huge difference to our community because protein sources are so hard to come by,” Coberg said.
But more needs to be done to institutionalize surplus food donation. With the exception of the national chains that have an agreement with Feeding America, participation in food rescue programs often hinges on the altruism of a store manager or whoever takes out the trash at the end of the night. If that person doesn’t want to intervene, the food just gets wasted.
And volunteer labor can only go so far in powering grocery rescue. “The member agencies that go in and pick up [rescue food] truly need volunteers to help build those relationships and to get on a consistent donation pick-up schedule. They need people to become drivers, volunteers at their locations to sort through the food, and they need financial donations to help buy refrigerators and freezers for storage,” Coberg said.
Frasz of FoodShift sees a future in which food recovery becomes another municipal utility, funded by taxpayers or made into a viable business. “We pay for recycling and compost services now,” she said. “So we could certainly pay people to redistribute food. Just a small amount of investment in food recovery would make it safer and more professional.”
Of course that would leave people like Yotam without the dumpster bounty they’ve come to rely on. “But that would be great,” he said. “I pray every time I go out that the dumpsters will be empty and that I won’t find anything.” So far, that has never happened. Correction: The original version of this story mistakenly stated that Berkeley Natural Grocery is on Shattuck Avenue, when, in fact, it is on Gilman Street. The author of the story also checked the store’s dumpster on Gilman.