Retail grocers efforts to reduce food waste both helping, hurting food banks

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - As technology improves and manufacturing becomes more efficient for grocery stores, food banks nationwide are facing new challenges.

"Online ordering has really hurt us in that regard," Elizabeth Wix of Community Food Bank of Central Alabama says. "It's more efficient for the retailers when they've already got the orders, they know exactly what they need, but that doesn't leave a lot of excess for us."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture finds Alabama homes to be among the most food insecure in the country. That means more Alabama families lack the money and/or resources to provide enough food for each family member to live an active, healthy life than almost anywhere else in the United States. In Jefferson County alone, nearly 20 percent of households are food insecure, according to estimates from Feeding America - the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief organization.

Social activism, initiatives funded by the federal government, and a growing list of financial incentives for reducing food waste are compelling at least one industry to become increasingly engaged in the fight against hunger.  Whole Foods Market says their Mountain Brook and Hoover locations donated more than 50,000 pounds of food in 2017. A Publix spokesperson reports donations from their 30 Birmingham locations totaled 1.4 million pounds.

However, improvements in the technology used to order products have reduced the chance of over-ordering. Publix uses an auto-replenishment program to stock its shelves, taking some guesswork out of the task for store managers and ensuring a better economy of scale, according to Brenda Reid of the chain's corporate offices.

"Our company has a basic desire to keep stuff out of landfill, because we have to pay to put products in those landfills," said Reid.  As part of that effort, Publix Charities awarded the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama a $150,000 grant last year for the purchase of refrigerated trucks capable of picking up donations from area grocers and delivering goods to food pantries or communities in need.

Whole Foods Market admits there is still a bit of guesswork involved, particularly with production in departments such as store bakeries, but says reducing waste and food insecurity is at the core of their company values.

"There are times when we over produce or over purchase and we want to make sure that gets to as many people as possible that can use it," said Hoover store team leader Jason Stonicher. "We don't put any food into the [trash] compactor. It either goes into compost, donation, or out the front door with a customer."

More than 100 local grocery stores donate to Community Food Bank of Central Alabama according to Wix. "They see the waste, they realize it's a problem and that there's just no sense in it."

Despite the benefits of an industry-wide trend to reduce waste among food retailers, many barriers to proper nutrition persist for Alabama. In one of the wealthiest nations in the world, Community Food Bank of Central Alabama, a member of the Feeding America network, says across its service area one in four children lack the food they need. There is also an epidemic of hunger among college students as the cost of living and tuition continues to rise. Additionally, the organization points to senior citizens on fixed incomes or facing mobility challenges as a "hidden issue in Alabama's fight against hunger."

While the Community Food Bank and the pantries it helps to supply can feed 60,000 – 80,000 people in need each month, they've battled challenges such as a nationwide drop in dry food donations due to the retailers improved efficiency. Other items like green beans, peanut butter, and protein-packed foods are in constant demand and require purchasing to keep in supply for food pantries. Helping the public understand that monetary donations offer more bang for their charitable buck is a constant process.

"Having food drives at your company or church are great!" says Wix. "But if you take that $1 you would spend on a can of food and donate it directly to us, for every $1 we are able to provide 8 meals for our neighbors in need."

For information and research on reducing food waste, visit https://furtherwithfood.org/.

For ideas on reducing waste in your own home, visit https://www.epa.gov/recycle/reducing-wasted-food-home.

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