Turning Food Waste into Food Wealth
Food diversion can help your business turn trash into treasure and scraps into sustenance.
By Matt Alderton
In recycling bins, refuse finds rebirth. A soda can becomes a rain gutter. A plastic water bottle is reincarnated as carpeting. A pickle jar finds new life as a beer bottle. Yesterday’s newspaper becomes an egg carton, or a paper plate.
Unfortunately, you can’t put food in the recycling bin. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be recycled or reused. Through a process known as food diversion — or food recovery — it can be, said Liz Peralta, Co-founder and Vice President of Impact at Feed Forward, a food impact consultancy whose mission is fixing flaws in the food system, including issues like food insecurity and food waste.
“When I think of food diversion, I think of playing basketball,” explained Peralta, who likened food diversion to the center on a basketball team — normally the team’s tallest, strongest player, which makes them ideally suited to the task of shot blocking. “You need someone like Shaq. That’s what a food diversion system is. It’s putting in place as many people as possible who can block good food from going into the trash.”
Food diversion at home is usually pretty simple: If you cook a meal, you don’t put the leftovers in the garbage; rather, you put them the refrigerator to eat the next day. If you buy too many bananas, you don’t throw them away when they start to go bad; instead, you make banana bread or freeze them for smoothies. If you have a pantry full of canned goods you won’t use, you don’t discard them; rather, you donate them to a canned food drive.
Because of the volume and scale of food waste involved, food diversion typically is a lot more complicated in commercial businesses like grocery stores and restaurants. But it also can be a lot more impactful — not only for the beneficiaries who receive diverted food, but also for the companies from which food is diverted. Food diversion in supermarkets has mimicked home behavior in recent years. Supermarkets have enlarged their cut fruit and vegetable offerings for this same reason — rather than allow fruit and produce overstock to spoil, it is business-savvy to turn it into a prepared option for consumers who are happy to have ready-to-eat and quick-cook meal options.
“Diverting food waste can bring … your business [both] recognition and dollars,” explained Peralta, who said businesses that participate in food diversion programs can benefit from positive publicity, reduced waste disposal costs and perhaps even from relevant tax incentives.
Facilities managers who are interested in exploring a food diversion program should start by asking a few fundamental questions:
Do we produce edible food waste? Waste that’s suitable for human consumption can be donated to local organizations like food banks and homeless shelters.
Do we produce non-edible food waste? Waste that’s not fit for human consumption may be donated to nearby farms that can use it for composting or feeding animals.
Does our waste stream consist mostly of fresh or prepared foods? While most organizations will accept fresh food donations, there may be restrictions on prepared foods due to safety precautions and other concerns. Because they can be deadly to animals, for example, many organizations don’t accept food with ingredients like candy, chocolate or the sugar substitute xylitol.
No matter what type of food waste you generate, there are logistical concerns to navigate. Some beneficiaries, for example, will pick up donations while others might require you to drop them off. If your waste stream is diverse, you might need to sort food waste before donating it. And in the case of perishable items, you might need to arrange for temperature-controlled storage to prevent spoilage. All of this can require resources in the form of space, equipment, labor and transportation.
Facilities managers also must consider the size of their company’s footprint: To avoid spoilage, individual stores often must locate and coordinate with charitable beneficiaries in their area, in which case success is highly dependent on the commitment of local store personnel. Alternatively, multiple stores in the same city or region might be able to backhaul donations to a central distribution center for shared processing.
Concluded Peralta, “All of this seems so confusing, but at the end of the day all you need to have is the desire to want to do something. The rest can be taken care of with partners like local nonprofits, food banks, apps and companies like Feed Forward who will literally come to you and follow your operations to help you find a solution for your particular program.”
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: The EPA shares information about wasted food programs and resources across the United States.
U.S. Department of Agriculture: The USDA shares information about where and why to donate food that might otherwise be thrown away.
Food Waste Reduction Alliance: FWRA offers a guide to help the food industry reduce food waste with food donations and diversion.
The Global FoodBanking Network: GFN promotes food banking and shares resources to help people find and support food banks.