Photo: Juniper L Simonis

Food waste.  A massive global problem on multiple fronts – environmental, social, and financial – and one of our most pressing sustainability challenges to solve if we are to successfully feed nearly ten billion global citizens by 2050.

Nearly every informed executive in the food system would say that the world is awakening to the imperative of reducing food waste (for which there is a specific Sustainable Development Goal (Target 12.3) calling for 50% reduction by 2030).  Many would add that much progress has been made in terms of awareness-raising, education, and innovation – thus setting the stage for a decade of accelerating innovation and broad tangible action at the business and consumer levels to sharply reduce food waste and, ideally, change culture in developed world countries to normalize food waste reduction versus food wasting behavior.

And while I generally agree that progress on the awareness and education front has been sound in the past decade, it’s far too easy to take comfort in that – in fact, I think it’s decidedly counterproductive to do so – as I continue to see numerous troubling indicators that should make all of us seriously question the efficacy of the last ten years of our work in the food waste space. 

To borrow from Bob Dylan, I think it is worth considering whether the times really are changing.

A case in point is this month’s very disturbing story of the disposal of thousands of pounds of high-quality food by a Fred Meyer store in Portland, Oregon. 

To briefly recap several news reports, on February 16th the Hollywood West Fred Meyer location discarded thousands of perishable food items in the wake of a power outage from a winter storm as the food had apparently exceeded temperature thresholds.  Images show substantial amounts of packaged meats, cheeses, yogurt, butter, juices, and other items tossed into two large dumpsters. 

Community members, feeling that the food was perfectly edible, sought to salvage some of the food for redistribution to the hungry, while store employees worked to block them from taking the food claiming that it was no longer safe for consumption. 

Over time tensions rose and store employees called the Portland police, who responded to maintain order.  Officers attempted to convey the store’s position to the community members, and eventually instructed them to leave or face arrest for trespassing on private property.  After the group dispersed, the officers left the scene.  Later, group members returned to capture some of the food.  Store employees again called the police, who declined to respond unless there was imminent threat of harm, which allowed community members to then salvage extensive amounts of the food – some of which went to fill community refrigerators designed to help those in need.

The story quickly spread around the country and was even picked up by The New York Times.

Fred Meyer, of course, is a division of Kroger, the U.S. grocer who, recognizing the potential for competitive advantage, has arguably been the most intentional in terms of messaging on its food waste, hunger, and sustainability efforts in recent years. 

Kroger’s social impact plan, for example, is intended to end hunger in its communities and achieve zero food waste in all stores and across the company by 2025.  And its Zero Hunger, Zero Waste Foundation reflects that plan, supporting “initiatives that create communities free of hunger and waste” with specific themes of “enabling collective action, catalyzing innovation, and creating a more equitable food system.”

So for Kroger, the optics of the February 16th incident, where hungry community members seeking to salvage discarded food were in a stand-off with store employees perceived as guarding it to prevent it from being consumed, are nightmarish – made worse by the sharp increase in food insecurity around the country due to the pandemic.

The company that has sought to be the leading retailer in food system innovation – advocating for the elimination of food waste and hunger and the restoration of communities – is suddenly, to many, being viewed as apathetic toward the waste of food and insensitive to the needs of hungry community members in trying times exacerbated by a weather emergency.  As one Portlander interviewed by KATU noted, “It just doesn’t seem like they are serving the community as much as they are advertising that they are.” 

To be fair, Kroger’s stated intentions are inspiring and hopefully will pull other companies along – we need audacious goal setting with unabashed, authentic commitment to figuring out how to accomplish such goals along the way.  And Kroger has donated over a billion meals to hungry Americans (as seen in their video here), set a baseline to measure its food waste, and decreased its total food waste footprint by 13% between 2017 and 2019 as noted here.  All great.  I have been a supporter of such efforts and will remain so (although I think their “end hunger” statement needs much more specificity to be measurable).

Further, reports indicate that store employees did reach out to relief agencies to arrange for donations, but pick-ups were, not surprisingly, hampered by weather conditions. 

But here’s the key.  And this applies to Kroger, its fellow retailers, and producers and distributors in the food sector: 

The food waste incident at the Fred Meyer store in Portland should never have happened, and would not have happened, if the company’s culture truly reflected its high-impact brand messaging on food waste reduction and hunger elimination. 

If it did, I would argue that plans would have been in place to rapidly respond to the situation, including contingencies for getting food to agencies that were having difficulty responding immediately.  The store could, for example, have sent an e-blast to the community, setting up a distribution event of free food items in its parking lot.  It is likely that many community members would have responded positively to such an effort, taking much of the food in a controlled manner.  In addition, the store could have given employees a portion of the food. 

Such options might well involve a decision at a specific point in time to set up creative donation efforts before meaningful time thresholds were crossed, but contingency plans that facilitate such decisions in crisis scenarios, coupled with employees operating in an authentic culture which truly empowers decision-making to reduce food waste and feed hungry community members, will yield positive results.

Creative employees can find common-sense, winning solutions, and they will be energized in the process.  Imagine how demoralized the Fred Meyer employees who discarded, and later “guarded” all of that food felt?  Much better to channel their energy into helping people and planet.

Meaningful food waste reduction requires authentic commitment and culture change.  Proclaiming the commitment is easy; overcoming myriad blockers to change culture is the hard, and very worthy, part – freeing employees to challenge entrenched thinking which perpetuates food waste in operations.

Food retailers have a critical responsibility for safeguarding food resources, and their actions must match their words to demonstrate authenticity.  This requires getting the company philosophy into operating DNA — the message must permeate down to employees at all levels and stores.  The operating mindset must be “food is too valuable to waste” not “food is easy to waste.”

With Kroger’s brand messaging on food waste reduction and eliminating hunger comes the responsibility to embed those values across the entire operation, so that employees in all stores understand and “live” those values – such that all team members continually seek out opportunities to minimize the waste of existing food as the normal course of business operations, ideally by diverting it to feed hungry people.

From Past to Future

The images of the Fred Meyer dumpsters full of highly valuable food items are reminiscent of the images of dumpsters full of food from the landmark film Just Eat It from seven years ago.  This is but one of many cases of excessive food waste that occur every day, examples that we can see if we choose to do so, and which increasingly make me question how little our food wasting mindsets and behaviors have actually changed in the past ten years.

Covid-19 has elicited many references to the notion of finding opportunity in crisis, particularly with respect to rebuilding a regenerative and equitable food system.  As Kroger notes on its website, the coexistence of hunger and excessive food waste is “a fundamental absurdity in our food system” and “we have to do something about it.”  The company goes on to note that “As America’s grocer, we believe we can do something about it with our size, scale and dedicated associates.”

Looking back on the February 16th incident, in a pandemic year – and in the midst of a disruptive storm – what better way to do something than to step up in a creative way and help the local community by giving away food?  Breaking from the institutional constraining themes of “If we give away food we’ll lose money by cannibalizing potential sales from these consumers” or “we have liability risk from someone suing us” or “we’re not set up to do that, nor do we have the labor to do it.”

In the case of Fred Meyer, wouldn’t it be great if store employees had the presence of mind to realize that in the midst of this power outage some food might go out of stringent temperature controls – and thus take proactive steps to make that food available to employees and community members as best they could?  And without fear of being punished for making a “bad” decision?  How great would it be if a frontline worker felt sufficiently empowered to make such a decision in accordance with stated company values without waiting for approval from a higher manager – saving some portion of food from going to waste and earning the gratitude of community members in the process?   

Getting to that level would be an indicator of a culture of authenticity.

Maximizing the After-Action-Review

Looking forward, what does the “After-Action-Review” look like for Kroger? 

In the aftermath, the company has the ability to find opportunity in crisis – to repair its image by doubling down on transparency and commitment to authenticity rather than clinging to the decades-old grocer dogma that prioritizes robotic food disposal-behavior under the guise of ensuring consumer safety (but is in fact hyper-focused on protecting the brand from reputational risk associated with frivolous lawsuits over food).

The easy path, of course, is for internal brandologists to dictate that such a situation never happens again, likely involving a recommendation to secure dumpsters in such a way that public visibility into discarded food is limited if it does (and it will).

That’s a seemingly quick and easy control fix, and while likely appealing to many insiders on the risk-minimization scale, I would argue that it is the wrong approach – indicating that mindsets are still focused on incrementalism and brand protection rather than authentic culture change.

A better approach would be to embrace the learning opportunity from this event, leaving the dumpsters outside and embracing transparency.  Look hard at what is being discarded in operations, and question what could have been done to avoid it.  It isn’t that hard to find ways to put food to its best use – the hard part is changing company culture and changing mindsets throughout the operation.

By normalizing food waste reduction efforts, establishing agile community partnerships, and empowering employees – Kroger will be much better prepared when a Fred Meyer-like situation recurs.  And even if donor partners can’t respond promptly in a crisis, staff and managers will naturally seek to do the right thing with excess food because doing so truly reflects the culture of the organization.  That would demonstrate authenticity. 

It’s easy to come up with reasons to avoid giving food to the community in such a situation and instead discard it – and that is precisely the problem

For Kroger, the operating norm to strive for should be how to do good with excess food at all times, not justifying why it should be discarded. Shifting that norm would be a game-changer!

It is likely that on February 16th, many of Fred Meyer’s dedicated store associates would have preferred to spend time quickly organizing an on-the-fly free food distribution event rather than discarding thousands of pounds of food in dumpsters and later “guarding” that food from hungry community members seeking to retrieve it.  How liberating to give food to community members in need, and how demoralizing to prevent them from taking it after the store effectively assigned that food zero value by throwing in the dumpster.

Lessons for food organizations

The ultimate lesson here for Koger and fellow food organizations (including other grocers) is this:  if you choose to portray your organization as a leader in reducing food waste and eliminating hunger, all employees must understand and be a part of that process.  That requires a deep culture change effort to ensure that the organization is living the values, and empowering the work force to continually seek creative solutions to match excess food with hungry people so that in crisis mode they feel unshackled.    

The need for urgent, tangible action for food waste reduction is clear.

Retailers must act as responsible stewards of food resources all the way through their process, from purchase and distribution to storage and ultimate sale.  Brands in the food sector with big food waste reduction and anti-hunger messages should use this event and look at their social responsibility messaging and ask themselves:  Are we being authentic?

The mindset needs to shift from incrementalism – which at the base level of retail operations really means “more of the same” – to transformational efforts which truly change operating culture to make food waste reduction behavior the norm.

Because there is no more time to waste. 

Embracing Opportunity

Ten years into a food waste movement in the U.S., we should be far beyond what occurred in Portland.

Big food organizations like Kroger can make all kinds of excuses for the confluence of events that led to the action to throw large quantities of food in dumpsters rather than getting it to hungry community members – but at the end of the day it begs the question of whether they are authentically living their values, and whether they really have changed. 

In the near future, there will be another storm that wipes out power for prolonged time periods and puts a retailer like Kroger in the position of either discarding large quantities of food or implementing creative solutions to get that food to employees and community members, putting it to its best use, and signaling that food is truly too valuable to robotically waste. 

Such an event – indeed preparing for it – will present opportunity.  The real question is, will company culture be such that employees feel empowered to take creative steps without fear of backlash?  Will their actions in crisis mode be an extension of everyday behavior?

So we will have another chance to consider whether the times really are changing in terms of food waste reduction at the retail level or whether, drawing on another song lyric (from Mary Chapin Carpenter), the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Let’s hope the big food story from the next power disruption is one of redistribution rather than dumping. Inspiration rather than demoralization — so we can all feel like times really are changing, not remaining the same.

We can do better.  We must do better.  We don’t have the time to not do better.