The social and economic benefits of reducing food waste

by Keith Nunes
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lime energy Making food waste streams more efficient in an effort to reduce the amount of food sent to landfills by food manufacturers and retailers was cited as an industry priority by a panel of experts who convened at the Sustainability Summit, an annual meeting sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and held in Scottsdale, AZ, last week. The panelists said reducing food waste will not only help address the issue of food insecurity in the US, but also help food companies improve their bottom lines by reducing costs and taking advantage of federal tax deductions.

“This conversation tends to start by talking about what goes to landfill, but you have to go back upstream to look at the economics,” said Robert Branham, director of customer sustainability for General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, MN. “You have to evaluate the costs of the inputs and all of the processes required to get food to our retail partners. And then, at the end of the day, you have to realize how much of that — the inputs, the nutrition and the calories — is disposed of.

“On top of that you have a growing number of people in this country who have less and less food security,” he continued. “The economic need on a number of different measures is incredibly consequential.”

Mr. Branham noted that the phrase “food waste” is a misnomer. Much of the fresh and processed product that ends up going to landfill is not presentable for sale, but perfectly safe to eat. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 34 million tons of food ends up in landfills every year, and as the waste in the landfills decomposes it produces methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases.

“The scale of this problem will make your head spin,” said Michael Hewett, director of environmental and sustainability programs for Publix Super Markets, Inc., Lakeland, FL. “The good news is there is something we can do about it.”

Mr. Branham said General Mills is in the process of assessing all of its facilities to develop an exact cost to the company for sending food to the landfill.

“You have to dig into the numbers to understand the costs,” he said. “On average it can cost $4,000 per truck to dump into a landfill. Then you have to incur the cost of having someone from the company go to the landfill to ensure the product is being landfilled. It is an amazing amount of money.”

Eric Olsen, senior vice-president of government relations and public policy for Feeding America, Chicago, IL, said that at the same time edible food is going to landfills, the incidence of food insecurity in the US is increasing.

“We are facing a perfect storm in terms of food security,” he said. “We are looking at a situation of sustained high need while at the same time we are seeing a decline in our first line of defense, which is the federal safety net.”

In addition to reducing costs by improving efficiencies, companies may benefit from increased tax deductions for the product they donate to food banks.

“In addition to evaluating the costs and potential savings, make sure you are maximizing tax savings as an organization,” Mr. Branham said. “What we have discovered is that [General Mills] may not be taking full advantage of all the codes that are available.”

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