Story at a glance

  • Americans waste as much as 40 percent of our food, worth $160 to $218 billion a year.
  • Kroger’s Zero Hunger | Zero Waste initiative improves food labeling and reduces food waste in the company’s 2,800 stores, diverting usable items to food banks.
  • The effort took more than 100 million pounds of food out of the chain’s waste stream in 2018, a 40 percent annual reduction.
  • Kroger expects to see an even greater reduction for 2019 and hopes to donate 1 billion meals in 2020.

On a particularly hot afternoon, halfway through a 1,000-mile bike ride, Rob Greenfield was thirsty. Upon arriving into a town — he doesn’t remember where — he found a grocery store. Instead of going inside for a tasty beverage, he went to the back and found his target: the store’s dumpster.

He jumped in, waded around and had a stroke of luck; fresh-pressed juice still packed in ice was there waiting for him. It was the perfect find for a parched bicyclist, but for Greenfield it was also perfectly illustrative of the problem he was trying to bring attention to: food waste

“Ice cold juice fresh from the dumpster,” he quips. “That’s actually standard, though. It's so abundant that every time you go out, you're going to generally have an amazing haul [from grocery store dumpsters].”

During that ride, Greenfield vowed to only eat food that was otherwise going to waste. While that meant regularly jumping into dumpsters (Greenfield says he’s done that a few thousand times by now), it wasn’t particularly difficult to find ready-to-eat food at his disposal. And that’s a big problem for the environment, he says, since rotting food releases methane and is a greater contributor to climate change than most other sources.

“All 7 billion people on the planet eat, but only a tiny percentage fly,” he explains. “Because everybody eats and most everybody eats multiple times a day, it adds up to being one of the largest impacts that we have.”

Various studies put total U.S. food loss between 31 percent and 40 percent of overall food production, meaning Americans waste around $160 billion on food each year or up to $218 billion when including farming, processing, transportation and disposal.

“It’s extremely problematic,” says Roni Neff, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins and director of the university’s Food System Sustainability Program. “Given the magnitude, we need to think about what it means in terms of lost money, lost cropland and lost food that could have otherwise been eaten. And as we move towards the advancement of climate change and population growth, we're really going to need that food and the resources that we're investing in producing it and not just be making trash.”

A report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture says retailers such as grocery stores are responsible for at least 10 percent of the waste. Neff also explains that retail practices can affect waste at the production and consumer level. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says confusing expiration labels are responsible for as much as 20 percent of waste by consumers. In 2017, the Grocery Manufacturers Association launched an initiative to narrow 10 commonly used labels to only two options: “Best If Used By” and “Use By.” The first speaks to quality and the second to safety. (Greenfield points out that the labels weren’t intended for consumer use to begin with, hence the confusion.)

It is in the context of increasing awareness that the largest grocery chain in the United States, The Kroger Co., started its Zero Hunger | Zero Waste initiative in 2017, instituting several methods designed to reduce waste in addition to the simplified labeling. A company representative told Changing America that food waste diversion programs are now in place in all of its 2,800 stores with unsold quality food going to food banks and families, as well as a goal to donate 1 billion meals in 2020 and 3 billion meals per year by 2025.

“Our priority is feeding people,” says Kari Armbruster, program manager for Zero Hunger | Zero Waste. “We also have food waste recycling programs like composting or animal feed or anaerobic digestion in about 2,000 of our stores, and we're continuing to grow that every day.”

According to Armbruster, the effort took more than 100 million pounds of food out of the chain’s waste stream in 2018, a 40 percent annual reduction in wasted food from before the program’s launch; she said they expect to see an even greater reduction for 2019. Additionally, the company’s Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation contributed $1 million in grants to companies and organizations implementing innovative ways to reduce food waste.

Tracking waste

Kroger’s program has received praise from corporate responsibility watchers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Chamber Foundation gave The Kroger Co. a Citizens Awards for “Best Community Improvement Program.” Engage for Good awarded the program the “Gold Halo Award” in their environmental category.

Additionally, the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation organization, gave Kroger the highest marks in its report card that looks at supermarkets and their commitment to combating food waste. In the announcement, they highlighted Kroger’s public commitment to achieve zero food waste by 2025 and for prioritizing tracking the food they throw out — an uncommon practice among grocery chains.

Tracking waste, Armbuster says, has proven to be the most challenging aspect of implementation because it means properly training their 460,000-member workforce to become more aware of where waste occurs. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste is now part of new hire orientation and regular training.

Also important, she adds, is customer engagement, promoting awareness through offering waste reduction tips, information about the labeling system and discounts on aesthetically imperfect food. For example, shoppers will find slightly bruised fruit placed on discount stands for a fraction of the original cost.

“Our customers love this program,” Armbruster says. “They're able to get things cheaper, which helps them fit it into their budget, and it's kind of a fun game for them to play to see what's there each and every day. We're always replenishing that stock.”

A history of helping out

Armbruster says that, since its founding when Bernard Kroger would hand bread out to hurricane victims, the company has been dedicated to reducing hunger. But recently, they started to recognize the role their own practices played.

“We realized we couldn't be a company committed to ending hunger if we were a company that was throwing food away,” she said. “So, we decided to do everything we could and use all of our resources and power to stop food waste. And it's been incredibly successful.”

That’s not to say that Greenfield wouldn’t still find quality product in a Kroger dumpster. 

“It’s a journey,” Armbruster says. “You'll see that reflected in the fact that we only estimate we're capturing 40 percent of the food waste in our stores and the rest still ends up in landfill. But I would say you definitely would see a much different assortment in there now than you would have three years ago or even one to two years ago.”

Neff says the efforts do appear to be a good start, but she argues there is a need for better research-supported public policies, particularly ones that focus on incentivizing people at each level to buy less of what they won’t consume, thereby reducing how many resources are spent on the food in the first place.

“If people just start composting more, they might think they’ve done enough and may not necessarily put effort into prevention in the first place,” she says. “Waste bans or changing the cost of discarding will motivate people through the supply chain to think of ways to reduce the amount that they discard.” 

According to Armbruster, the company is open to “opportunities to partner with leaders who want to make legislation but we’re moving forward either way and I think we're making a big headway on our own.”

Published on Dec 09, 2019