Supermarkets and restaurants serve up more than 400 million pounds of food each year, but nearly a third of it never makes it to a stomach.
With consumers demanding large displays of unblemished, fresh produce, many retailers end up tossing a mountain of perfectly edible food. Despite efforts to cut down on all that waste, in the U.S., the consumer end of the food chain still accounts for the largest share. It comes down to shoppers demanding stocked shelves, buying too much and generally treating food as a renewable resource.
A recent visit to the Hy-Vee supermarket in Independence, Mo., illustrates the problem. Shopper Shirley Phelps scans the banana stand, looking for the perfect bunch.
"I don't want them too ripe," she says, skipping over brown-spotted bananas in favor of a bunch still tinged with green.
Historically, produce like those brown-dotted bananas would be headed for the landfill. "[It's a] perfectly good banana," says store director Paul Hoppman. But "it won't sell because it just doesn't look good."
Hoppman says presentation is paramount to keeping business. That means culling fruit deemed too ripe and making sure the stands are stocked to the brim with perfect bounty year-round.
"It's a fine line you're walking, having the best fruit out there that is going to taste good to the customer but not breaking down yet," Hoppman says. So stores are always rotating out the less desirable produce.
A full 10 percent of the available food supply in the U.S. is wasted every year at the retail level, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and about 20 percent is wasted at home. That's food worth more than $160 billion. And it's food that could go toward feeding the estimated 1 in 7 American households that can't find enough to eat.
One group that aims to rescue food from the rubbish bin to better purpose is Indiana-based Food Finders. The group redistributes unsellable food from supermarkets and restaurants to food banks. But the group's biggest challenge, says its executive director, Katy Bunder, is finding a useful afterlife for the ready-made meals that supermarkets serve up to cater to convenience shoppers.
"To me the biggest amount of wasted food is prepared food," says Bunder.
"We can't repackage it, freeze it, hold on to it and then distribute it through our mobile pantry the next days," she says. In some states, the law requires that food that's been cooked be served right away.
But those appetizer plates, specialized salads and hot-and-ready-to serve rotisserie chickens are unlikely to disappear from the aisles so long as hungry, harried shoppers keep scooping them up.
Another big source of retail food waste? Consumer confusion over date labels.
Food safety specialist Londa Nwadike says consumers often mistake "sell by" and "best by" dates for expiration dates — which they're NOT. They're actually meant to indicate how long food has been around, not how safe it is. (Here's our post explaining the labeling problem.)
One study in the United Kingdom found that label confusion was responsible for 20 percent of the perfectly edible food that gets tossed out in homes. That confusion also sticks supermarket directors, like Hy-Vee's Paul Hoppman, with heaps of healthful food that no one will buy.
To reduce the food waste that gets trucked to a landfill, many supermarkets are turning to compost. Compost companies can take organic waste and turn it into a valuable soil amendment.
The Hy-Vee store in Independence has cut its landfill deliveries from three times a week to three times a month, thanks to the compost pile. The store also works with church food banks that swing by daily to pick up unsold food. That earns the company a small tax write-off.
Around the country, supermarkets are also using software that projects how much food to order from the warehouse, so they're not stuck with massive amounts of extra. But, Hoppman says, although these advancements are helpful, food waste remains a problem.
"As the stores have grown, that food waste [has grown] more and more all the time," he says. "My progression of working in stores was 20,000- to a 30,000- to a 60,000-square-foot store, and then this store is 82,000 square feet."
That's a lot of square feet of food that might go uneaten.