Driving a van belonging to the university, Morgan Barlin, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, crosses the campus and stops in three dining halls on a spring afternoon.
At each stop, Barlin is greeted by kitchen staff who present her with various leftover food, from sweet potatoes to breakfast omelettes. This food, which would otherwise have been thrown away, will be redistributed free of charge to the students.
At the end of its journey, Barlin records the weight of each donation. Her calculations show that that day she saved 271 pounds of food from ending up in the landfill. Barlin’s organization, the Food Recovery Network at UW-Madison, uses recovered food to provide free community meals.
The State Department of Natural Resources’ 2020-21 Waste Characterization Study estimates that 854,000 tons of food was thrown away in Wisconsin last year; over 70% was still edible, what the DNR calls “wasted food”. While 1.7 billion pounds of edible food ended up in the trash in Wisconsin, 1 in 11 people in the state went hungry.
Groups across the state have been looking for alternatives to get food that would be wasted by those in need.
“(The Food Recovery Network) tackles both food waste and food insecurity because they are paradoxical issues,” said Barlin, who graduated in May. “We shouldn’t be throwing food away at the same time that people in our community are also hungry, and so this seems like the most practical and easiest way to somehow ameliorate different issues in our food system.”
But redistributing food from restaurants and grocery stores that hasn’t yet been spoiled is controversial in the world of charity food aid — and difficult to achieve under existing food handling standards.
Relaunch efforts for grocery stores and restaurants
Beyond the efforts on the UW-Madison campus, other Wisconsin programs are intercepting still-edible food from grocery stores, convenience stores and restaurants that would normally head to the dumpster. In Madison, The River Food Pantry runs a food recovery program that collects food from more than 100 Dane County stores.
“So much food is thrown away every day,” said Helen Osborn-Senatus, operations manager at The River. “If you’re at the grocery store and you see that one dollar off coupon, if it’s not picked up that day, it’s going to be thrown away.”
In 2021, about 40% of the 3.6 million pounds of food served by The River came from this stimulus program, she said.
“These are quality foods that are safe to eat, but they’re past their (best before) date, and that’s the only reason they’re thrown away,” Osborn-Senatus said.
But Osborn-Senatus’ view of the value of food salvage is not universally shared. Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Milwaukee‘s Hunger Task Force, says her agency is refusing to redistribute that food.
“Our organization does not accept food donated from grocery stores or food that would otherwise be wasted,” Tussler said. “Our organization has a worth of dignity. We will not pass food through our pantry network that we would not personally give to our best friend.”
Tussler suspects there are other motivations for grocery stores to offload their food to these recovery programs.
“There’s this secrecy in the world of food banks that started with Second Harvest, and they source food from grocery stores,” Tussler said. “Grocery stores then don’t have to pay dumpster fees… (They) can get a tax deduction for food donations – but how good is that food?”
Waste a matter of taste
Brandon Scholz, CEO and president of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, agrees that such efforts reduce dumpster fees, but he says that’s not the only goal.
“When you have to put (food) in the dumpster, you’re wasting that money — which is something you don’t want to do,” Scholz said. “The last thing (grocers) would do, (after) exhausting all other options, is throw it away.”
One such option is to make banana bread with browning bananas. Alternatively, food can be donated to local pantries, he said.
Ian Steele, food resource manager at Second Harvest Foodbank in Southern Wisconsin, says his organization is taking precautions to ensure donations can be distributed safely. Second Harvest checks the temperature of food to ensure there are no items in the “temperature danger zone”. The food bank also checks for potential cross-contamination between raw and ready-to-eat foods.
Unregulated sale deadlines
Steele notes that aside from baby food, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not regulate food code dates, which include use-by, sell-by, and freezer-by dates, among other phrases.
“Basically, this means that some of the food we receive through donations and distribute has actually passed (its) stated code date. (But) it doesn’t impact the safety of the food being distributed,” Steele said. .
Scholz explains that these dates are “more of a guideline than a requirement,” adding, “What happens if you eat a product with an expiration date of April 7 through April 8? Really nothing.”
Grocers are more motivated to keep food fresh to meet customer demand rather than because of a health code requirement, he said.
“There isn’t necessarily a specific law that says you have to get rid of lettuce that looks brown,” Scholz said. “It’s a very competitive business, so you don’t want to have products that look shabby because if your competitors have better-looking products, your customers go there.”
On a $100 grocery sale, after various expenses, a grocer is left with only 80 cents of profit — a margin of less than 1%, Scholz said.
“If a grocery store is throwing away food, it’s probably for a reason,” he said. “There’s probably some dumb retailer doing this (throwing food for no reason), but I can assure you there isn’t one in Wisconsin.”
Food safety first
Restaurants must adhere to health codes that sometimes prompt them to throw away edible food.
Foods need to be kept at certain temperatures, says Susan Quam, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. If food is kept within the required temperature range at all times, it can be reused and not wasted, she says.
But, “If it’s something that’s supposed to be kept cold and has been stored at room temperature, then you’re not able to store that product – you have to dispose of it within four hours,” he said. she declared.
Restaurants are under the same pressure as grocery stores. Quam says profit margins in the industry are low and restaurants have an incentive to reduce food waste because they lose money for every dish thrown away. But safety is the top priority.
“Food safety plays an important role in everything a restaurant does,” she said. “We protect public health first and foremost. Ideally, (catering) operators don’t do anything that produces waste.”
“Harder to throw away this meal”
Beyond the waste produced in grocery stores and restaurants, Barlin says the majority of food waste is generated by individuals. According to the USDA, 31% of the edible food supply in the United States went uneaten in 2010, with consumers responsible for more food wasted than retailers.
That year, consumers threw away 90 billion pounds of food; Barlin notes that this presents a good opportunity for people to learn how to reduce food waste at home, with campaigns dedicated to reusing food components often considered inedible, such as broccoli stalks.
The task can be as simple as making a shopping list to avoid over-buying or learning about unregulated expiration dates to avoid throwing away food while it’s still edible.
“If you’re more mindful of how far your food traveled to get to your plate or who worked to get that food to your plate,” Barlin said, “it’s a lot harder to throw that meal away.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch works with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news outlets, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, published or broadcast by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.