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Supermarket Food Waste Programs Are Just the Beginning—Real Change Starts With You

In most developed countries, consumers account for the bulk of food waste.

A haul of wasted foods from garbage cans in New Zealand. Image by Love Food Hate Waste NZ via Flickr

Earlier this month Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain and the world’s fifth-largest overall retailer, decided to start donating all the leftover food from its stores to charity. Given that the store’s outlets threw out about 33,000 tons of edible food in 2015—products in ripped packaging, wonky fruits, or items approaching an arbitrary sell-by date—this move was a big deal for efforts to reduce both hunger and food waste in Europe’s most nutritionally profligate nation.

Tesco’s decision was just the latest in a wave of major moves to reduce food waste across the world in 2016. These efforts represent a hopeful shift in retailers’, governments’, and citizens’ awareness and priorities. But programs like Tesco’s are only a first step toward more efficient global food distribution. When it comes to cutting out squandered resources, we have a lot more work to do.

The bulk of 2016’s food waste reduction innovations came in February. Morrisons, another U.K supermarket chain (the country’s fourth-largest) finalized a 2015 scheme to distribute all its excess food. Beyond the U.K., both Denmark and the Netherlands opened new retailers—called WeFood and Swingmarket, respectively—where the general public can purchase discarded food from larger chain stores. And perhaps most important, France finally passed a law requiring supermarkets to donate their edible food waste to charities under threat of fines. This law will drive hundreds of thousands of tons of food to French charities every year, and it may just be the first in a wave of similar legislation all over Europe, compelling or incentivizing donations.

These innovations are just individual manifestations of a sea change regarding food waste over the course of 2015. Inspired by the attention-grabbing work of activist chefs like Dan Barber, who opened an insanely popular pop-up restaurant using kitchen scraps last spring, the public has begun to more consciously mull over the facts of global food waste: Half of all the food we produce, trillions of pounds of nourishment, is never eaten. Meanwhile nearly 800 million people around the world are food insecure. (In the United States alone we throw out one-third of our edible food, wasting well over $100 billion annually, while some 49 million citizens live at risk of hunger.) Beyond an insult to the hungry, this is a huge waste of land and water, farming supplies, and planetary resources.

Around the world, people are realizing that by eliminating food waste, we could easily feed all of the world’s hungry for a year—at least twice over. And we can do so without any increase in agricultural production, which was long the favored solution. Last year, this widening recognition and focus led to a United Nations pledge to halve global food waste by 2030. The European Union and individual nations, including Denmark, France, and the United States, made similar pledges, either around the same time or during the preceding years.

Food obtained by dumpster diving in Sweden. Image via Flickr user Quispiam.

Yet none of these new programs or pledges actually tackle the bulk of food waste. In France, for example, the Ministry of Ecology reports that consumers produce 67 percent of food waste, restaurants produce another 15 percent, and retailers contribute only 11 percent. Supermarkets, the targets of the nation’s new law, argue that they specifically contribute only 5 percent of all waste. The situation in many developed nations is similar—yet few existing plans actually address the consumer-end problems behind the bulk of food waste.

There’s also a chance that the new programs won’t be effective because of logistical challenges. French food banks especially have noted that to make good use of their new windfall they’ll need more staff, cars, storage facilities, and money, none of which seems to be in the offing. The lack of action on this front leads some to suspect that a number of new initiatives are more about signaling intention and care than actually getting things done.

And to cap it all off, major pushes to funnel rejected items into local charities, even if they have full logistical support, might just be kicking the problem down the road. As noted above, there’s more food waste than mouths to feed—especially in the developed world. Food sent to already active charities might plug a few gaps. But it won’t reach the hungry in the developing world. (Nor are these programs replicable there, where most food waste occurs because of issues with harvesting, storage facilities, and infrastructure rather than consumer-end profligacy.) Instead it may lead, as some in France already fear, to a situation where charities, rather than retailers, are the ones having to toss food.

To make the high-profile food waste reduction programs of early 2016 mean anything, the world needs to take a few important steps: We need to dump money into redistribution logistics—both cars and apps that can optimize the movement of goods based on need and perishability (à la Amazon’s fulfillment services). More important, we also need to train and trust consumers to consume with greater efficiency by recognizing when things actually go bad, developing tools (like smart fridges) that can help us consume goods before they spoil, and encouraging people not to fear crazy-looking produce or dented cans. If we can shop and eat more efficiently—including learning to patronize shops like WeFood and Swingmarket—we can hit total food waste where it really matters. In the process, we’ll reduce pressures on global food systems as well as the risk of overstuffing charities.

The more efficient we make our own food choices, the more cash we can likely free to aid in no-strings-attached infrastructure and farming development elsewhere on Earth. That cash can further reduce the waste, hunger, and stress to the environment generated by the way we currently feed high-risk areas of our growing world.

The pushes that can really fill the major cracks in the planet’s food problems can only happen more incrementally and with less flash than programs, noble as they may be, that turn gobs of supermarket trash into usable food. Ultimately, finding the energy to push even harder on food waste reduction—and knowing the solution has to start with you, the consumer—will make those programs more meaningful and bring food waste reduction further than they ever could.

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