MINNEAPOLIS — A decade ago, all of the food Supervalu donated to food banks was dry grocery products. But today, just 28% is dry grocery, and the rest is perishables.
For example, even when it is past the point of being marketable in stores, produce can be a viable candidate for donation; it now represents 23% of the 48 million pounds of food Supervalu gives annually to Feeding America, its primary food bank partner. “The fresh produce may have a small blemish but it's very consumable,” said Tom McIntyre, Supervalu's director, research and development, energy and environmental, during a session on food waste at the FMI/GMA Sustainability Summit in Arlington, Va., last month.
Other perishables Supervalu donates to food banks include meat (24% of the total), dairy (14%) and bakery (11%).
But there are a host of challenges that must be overcome to donate perishable products. Time is one. “When we reach the end of perishable products' useful life, the amount of time we have to turn it and get it to somebody who can use it is really short,” he said.
To expedite the process, trucks from Feeding America need to come to stores on a frequent and reliable basis to pick up donations, sometimes seven days per week, McIntyre said. In some cases, Supervalu has donated trucks (from terminated online grocery-shopping programs) for the pick-ups.
Without regular pick-ups, store workers can get out of the habit of setting aside perishables for donations and there will be “nothing to pick up,” he noted.
If a store claims it does not have perishables to donate, Supervalu — sometimes McIntyre himself — will conduct a waste audit. “A store might say, ‘This doesn't work in our banner because we have really low shrink and we don't have anything to give,’” he said. “I'll say, ‘Let's open up the compactor and sort through and see what you've got.’ It's an eye-opening experience every time.”
Those audits, he added, are “a good way for me to engage with people and figure out how passionate they are about sustainability.”
McIntyre also encourages stores to overcome reservations about donating meat. “If we can freeze meat within 24 hours of its code date, the meat is edible and can be picked up,” he said. “We engage with meat managers and explain this is the protocol.”
McIntyre acknowledged that Supervalu works extensively with its food safety executives to ensure that donated perishables are safe to eat. Currently, the company won't donate prepared rotisserie or fried chickens “because we don't feel we can cool it fast enough,” he said.
The federal Good Samaritan Act removes any legal liability for food donations — a protection McIntyre needs to point out to operations executives nervous about being sued.
On the other hand, store employees often get excited “when they realize that food they were throwing away is going to a good place,” he said.