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Where Does Leftover Food Go?

Whenever I walk into the supermarket, I’m always amazed at the sheer abundance of food and variety of choices—mountains of peaches, walls chock-full of verdant greens, and a bakery churning out freshly-baked bread. I love having such fresh and tasty options, but there’s always a little part of me that can’t help but wonder how much of that food ends up in the trash. Obviously, not every single piece of fruit or cut of meat is going to get sold and with all the people who go hungry every day, it would be a shame for all that abundance to just go to waste.

That daily fresh bread—what happens to the leftovers from yesterday? What happens to the bruised fruit, the wilted kale, and the milk that just passed its expiration date? Not to mention the entire section of prepared foods … the rotisserie chickens, the pre-assembled sandwiches, and the housemade cookies and cakes. Plenty of those items are still perfectly edible when they’re cleared out to make room for newer, fresher food. What happens to it all?

Not Wanted, but Not Wasted
The bad news is that there is a lot of wasted food from supermarkets and restaurants—a whole lot. In 2006, supermarkets reported a loss of 8.4 percent of fruits and veggies and 8.9 percent of all meat and seafood, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. So even though supermarkets try their hardest to get you to buy more than you need, almost 10 percent of all the fresh food from the supermarket never gets purchased. And that’s just what actually makes it to the shelves—it doesn’t even take into account items that are damaged in transit or are otherwise judged to be unfit for sale. Restaurants sometimes have an even higher margin of waste, since they have to be even pickier about the quality, freshness, and appearance of the food they serve, and generally discard anything that’s not up to their standards.

The good news is that a significant portion of leftover food is repurposed in some way. Food that hasn’t expired yet has the best chance of being put to good use and one place that unsold food can end up is in a food bank. Organizations like Feeding America serve as clearinghouses for food donations, working with supermarkets, restaurants, caterers, and even regular people to collect unused food and distribute it within their network of community pantries and local charities. Food banks usually focus on non-perishable items such as dried pasta or canned vegetables, but they do take donations of fresh food as long as it’s still in edible condition—fruit can’t be rotting, meat can’t be expired, and grains can’t be stale or crusty. Food banks often take donations of items with packaging damage, products in seasonal packaging, and other surplus items that stores can’t sell, but are otherwise edible.

When it comes to fresh food, some restaurants and supermarkets donate to special perishable food recovery programs. These organizations differ from food banks in that the donations are delivered to the recipients right away, rather than being organized and distributed over a few days. Food recovery programs deliver donations to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, or other charities where they will be used immediately. In New York City, many restaurants and stores donate to God’s Love We Deliver, an organization that delivers fresh meals to AIDS patients, as well as City Harvest, which collects food from restaurants, delis, and supermarkets for delivery to community centers and other local emergency food programs.  

Food Goes Back to the Farm
Laws prevent companies from donating expired or damaged food to the needy, because of the risk of food-borne illness. Individual stores and companies dictate their own food waste policy, and many are eager to repurpose the scraps, especially in this time of environmental consciousness.

Some large retailers repurpose fresh food by selling it to farms, where it can be used as animal feed. Zoos can also take donations of food unfit for humans. They especially seek donations of bread, dairy, and produce to help keep their feed costs down. Another option is turning food waste into nutrient rich and valuable compost. Whole Foods, for example, turns their rotting produce and expired meat into compost for gardens or farms. They haul the unusable food to composting centers, where the food is broken down into fertilizer. Some Whole Foods stores, including those in Southern California, actually sell their compost. The same goes for restaurants. In San Francisco, the garbage service picks up food scraps from over 2,000 restaurants; it is turned into compost and sold to local farmers. However, an establishment’s ability to repurpose their waste depends on where they are located. The Northeast and Pacific coast have many more facilities for food composting and recycling than do states like Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. In those states, stores may end throwing food waste in the landfill with the regular trash. Overall, restaurants are much more likely than supermarkets just to throw away their old and expired food, since the economics of composting may be cost-prohibitive for a small operation. Even when food ends up in the dumpster, there’s still a chance that a well-meaning freegan will find it.

In the current environmental and economic climate, it’s become trendy to donate and recycle, and each store sets its own policy on what to do with food waste. Kroger stores donate about $45 million worth of food every year and Safeway donates $110 million. Some smaller restaurants and stores allow their employees to take home food that would otherwise be wasted, like prepared sandwiches and salad items, especially since those items can’t be donated or repurposed for anything but compost.

There’s a lot of food waste generated every year and there’s a lot of hungry people in the country. Luckily, stores right now are particularly motivated to be charitable with their excess food. There’s many ways to turn waste into something useful and environmentally correct. Next time I’m at the supermarket, I won’t feel bad about all those sad, unsold peaches and plums. I know that any food left behind will have a great opportunity to do some good for a hungry person, animal, or garden.  

Allison Ford

Allison is a writer and editor who specializes in beauty, style, entertainment, and pop culture. She was part of the editorial team at DivineCaroline (now for more than three years. She loves makeup, sparkly accessories, giraffes, brunch, Matt Damon, New York City, and ice cream.