The amount of food we waste globally has become a front-of-mind concern recently and with good reason: In the U.S. alone, an estimated 26 percent of all food produced is wasted. In a country where, in 2013, an estimated 17.5 million households faced food insecurity, this just should not be a problem.
One major link in the food waste chain is retailers, which often throw away less than aesthetically pleasing produce, often not even donating it to food banks or other charities.
“Retailers have a huge impact, not only in their store policies and practices (to donate or not) but in their purchasing policies as well,” Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, told me in a recent interview. “Retailers can also be more transparent about how much food is currently wasted at supermarkets. That candidness would enable a more robust policy discussion.”
There has been a lot of momentum in this direction, especially abroad: France led the way in 2014 when retailer Intermarché introduced its “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign, and in 2015 when its parliament voted to forbid major supermarkets from destroying unsold food, encouraging them to donate to charities or to farms for animal feed; in the UK, grocery giants Tesco and Asda have followed suit with a redistribution partnership and a “Wonky Veg” campaign, respectively.
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Policymakers here are finally starting to take notice, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture setting a goal to reduce wasted food by 50 percent by 2030. But more needs to be done on the retail side, which is why last summer the @UglyFruitAndVeg campaign launched a petition targeting Whole Foods and Walmart, two of the largest sellers of produce in the United States, both of which have lax waste policies.
“Unfortunately only 10 percent of wasted food is donated, the rest is landfilled because many businesses only donate a fraction of what they could,” said Jordan Figueiredo, a solid waste specialist and founder of the @UglyFruitAndVeg Campaign, which aims to raise awareness about what companies and policymakers can do to solve the food waste problem.
Apparently, consumers agree, as the petition went viral, with over 111,000 supporters at last count. For Bloom, also a co-organizer of the petition, the benefits of donating wasted food for retailers should make it a no-brainer.
“Donating food, which is usually free, provides tax credits, social benefits, and environmental benefits,” he said. ”All of which are magnitudes better than just paying for landfill or composting extra food.”
Bloom and Figueiredo want Walmart and Whole Foods to begin selling ugly produce, and to be more transparent about how they dispose of food waste. But they also understand that getting these two retailers on board is not, by itself, the solution: They also want stronger legislation.
That is why the two are also supporting a bill proposed by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), a leader on this issue in Washington D.C., who regularly calls out companies for not donating leftovers to food banks. Late last year, Pingree introduced The Food Recovery Act, HR 4184. The comprehensive bill would transform how we think about wasted food at the consumer level, in grocery stores and restaurants, in public institutions like school, and on farms.
"Wasted food costs us over $160 billion a year in this country," Pingree said in a press statement. "That works out to about $125 a month for a family of four. We can save money and feed more Americans if we reduce the amount of food that ends up getting sent to landfills."
Unfortunately, Congress is infamous for deadlock, making passing the bill a tall challenge.
“Right now the bill needs a co-sponsor, likely from the other side of the aisle, to introduce the bill in the House,” Figueiredo said. “So until that happens, more signatures, more press, and more sharing/attention is what we're aiming for.”
In the meantime, the team’s petition seems to have hit home: In the past week, both Whole Foods and east coast retailer Giant Eagle have launched ugly produce initiatives of their own – Whole Foods is partnering with Oakland, Calif-based startup Imperfect Produce to test sales of beautiful-on-the-inside fruits and veggies in a handful of stores in Northern California beginning in April; and Giant Eagle has launched a pilot program called “Produce with Personality” in five Pittsburgh locations.
We all know the influence that companies have on politics, and by taking action independent of government, retailers and other private-sector actors in the food chain can push the debate further and motivate those who are dragging their heels on ending food waste.