Why Do We Want What Food Retailers Are Throwing Away?
It was a Friday afternoon at the Second Harvest Heartland office. A Communications Coordinator had a container of strawberries at his desk for a couple of hours, which he had eaten most of. Some of the remaining berries were not perfect, maybe slightly bruised.
Since it was the end of the week, this Communications Coordinator got up from his desk to throw away the last of the strawberries in the break room. As he was walking, he was chatting about the upcoming weekend with a colleague, April Rog, and was nearing the garbage can, not really considering his audience.
Before he knew what was happening, April leapt (truly) from her chair and flew to him. “These strawberries look perfectly good, let me look at them first before you throw them!” She took the container from his hands and inspected them.
What the Communications Coordinator soon realized is that April’s excited strawberry rescue was in her nature. In fact, it is what she has done every day since she started at Second Harvest Heartland in 2010.
April is Second Harvest Heartland’s Director of Food Rescue, a role responsible for diverting edible surplus, or short-dated foods that would otherwise go to waste and getting it to people who do not have enough to eat. Second Harvest Heartland’s main source of this rescued food comes from nearly 500 retailers and grocery stores.
“The reason that this program is successful is because it provides a solution to the inherent waste built into the system,” April explained. “Retailers are under constant pressure to meet the increasing quality demands of their customers as competition intensifies.
To compete for sales, retailers must exceed customers’ expectation for quality, availability, and freshness. To do so, retailers need to carry inventory to meet sales demands, with enough extra food items on-hand to account for cosmetic or freshness losses that are common for fresh foods. A retailer is most successful when they have the smallest possible percentage of losses while guaranteeing that they never run out. It’s a reality in every retail environment.”
April started her career working at a grocery store herself, eventually working her way up to Produce Manager. Early in her role, someone called and asked her department to join a program that would save her from having to throw away as much perfectly edible food. They would collect the food free of charge and transport it safely to food shelves. Without skipping a beat, April said yes! Little did she know, she was talking to someone with the role she’d later take on herself—the head of Food Rescue at Second Harvest Heartland.
With an understanding of the inner workings of retail, and the truth about what’s behind wasted food, April has helped drive the Retail Food Rescue program from rescuing and distributing 12 million pounds of food in 2010 to 36.4 million pounds last year alone.
“Retailers remove food from shelves for a lot of reasons,” April said. “It may no longer be relevant due to manufacture marketing—if it has an elf on it and it’s Jan. 3, they can’t sell it.” There is nothing wrong with the holiday-themed food itself, but customers won’t as readily buy time-sensitive packaging.
Similar to what Mike, a Produce Manager from Lunds & Byerlys, shared with us, April echoed that people only want to buy perfect produce. “An average shopper will make a purchase only when they have an abundant choice. I remember while training in produce that in order to appeal to a customer who is shopping for one apple, we wanted to stack 100.”
Retailers need to not only consider an apple’s appearance and freshness in the store, but also in its future after purchase. April said retailers will pull produce off the display if they have days of freshness ahead of them, but not a full week. Retailers aren’t just thinking of the customers experience at the store, but also their experience throughout the week when they are eating their purchases. If it goes bad before they have the chance to use it, they remember where that apple came from, and it reflects negatively on that store.
The life of an apple isn’t over when it has a week left of anticipated freshness, but it gets replaced by a new generation because retailers need to be perfect to remain competitive.
So where does that apple go?
“Our program is designed to get it to a food shelf within 24 hours,” April said.
April has made reducing food waste a priority for most of her career. But reducing that waste through hunger relief has augmented her passion in an important way. When she was in college, April took a semester off to spend time with her ailing grandmother. She frequently visited her grandma’s assisted living community, and being around the residents really moved her.
Her connection with her grandmother has made senior hunger her biggest motivator. “We played cards, we played rummy. Really sweet moments of time spent—that’s what I remember. At Grandma’s, it was peaceful. She had time for you, focused on you, was engaged,” April said. “When she had her stroke, I would try to do the same thing for her, to really take that time. That really means something to me and always will.”
Everyone has their own context they bring to the conversation of hunger. For April, it’s about the million pounds of food that go unused each year in Minnesota and the hundreds of thousands of people who could eat it. Learn more about Retail Food Rescue and what you can do to help!