I have Google News alerts set up for just about every retailer in the U.S.
It creates a lot of noise in my inbox, but I also find some interesting story leads, like the time Walmart was ordered to pay a guy $7.5 million for tripping on a watermelon pallet, or the myriad versions of Whole Foods employee reactions to being purchased by Amazon.
Today’s head scratcher came courtesy of Orlando Weekly, with a headline like this:
Publix is a founding member of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance.
This doesn’t sound right.
I took a look at the report called “Checked Out,” produced by the very science-y sounding Center for Biological Diversity, in collaboration with the not-very-science-y ‘Ugly’ Fruit and Veg Campaign. Both are activist groups.
They graded the 10 “largest grocery companies” in the U.S. on efforts to “take meaningful action or give public commitments to address their contribution to the food waste crisis,” with heavy emphasis on selling ugly produce in stores.
In fact, the produce part of the scorecard offers only five points, all of which are related to selling off-grade produce in-store:
- 3 points for selling “ugly” or “second- or third-grade” produce whole in all stores; or
- 2 points for an established program selling “ugly” or lower-grade produce in some stores; or
- 1 point for piloting “ugly” or lower-grade produce in some stores.
- 1 point for using “ugly” produce in prepared or pre-cut foods in all or some stores.
- 1 point for repurposing in-store produce that was on shelves and pulled back for cosmetic reasons and put into meals/pre-cut items in all or some stores.
So, it’s basically all food waste reduction efforts are related to selling off-grade produce. As if off-grade produce didn’t already have a pretty healthy stream of diversion from landfill, with more efforts building every day.
I can think of multitudes of organizations that are finding ways to make sure everything farmers produces gets eaten. I don’t think the best place for off-grade is on the shelves at a mainstream retailer. I hear mixed reviews on how well it sells, most of which are not favorable.
There’s a great article from a few weeks ago in Food & Wine that discusses this conundrum: food banks and other charitable organizations already were using those items.
“Farmers used to be like, ‘Hey man, I can’t sell this, so I’m going to give this to the food bank.’ That’s happening less and less,” he says. “The market forces are driving food waste towards reinvestment and profitability versus down towards charity. What will happen in three years, six years, or nine years demands a vigorous re-examination of our food system.”
I’m all for farmers finding the right market, and retailers marketing the right product, but I’m not sure the right solution for reducing food waste is relying entirely on selling off-grade in the mainstream supermarket.
Publix’s D wasn’t the worst offender on this report card. Batavia, Ill.-based Aldi received an F, Whole Foods scored a D, and so did Trader Joe’s. I take issue with Aldi's failing grade, too. Much of the produce I see there isn't the same grade you'd see at a premium banner.
Could be that the report’s criteria also is heavily weighted toward transparency and “corporate accountability,” and organizers pointed out that nine out of 10 of the retailers graded don’t report their total volume of food waste.
I know many retailers have well-established food waste reduction programs, and are doing a lot of the actions listed on this group’s scorecard, but maybe aren’t doing a good job of telling the story.
As for stocking so-called “ugly” produce, that’s something for you to decide.