Over the past decade I’ve volunteered at various food rescue charities. Such charities receive unsold food donations from shops or restaurants, and redistribute it to food banks or shelters. Whilst this is a mutually beneficial and efficient way to eliminate waste, it also lulls you into a false sense of security that the problem of food waste has been addressed. Working with food rescue allows you a good understanding of how much food is being donated, but you’re still utterly in the dark about how much food is still being thrown away.

Trevor, a former supermarket employee, describes costing out and throwing away food:

This was a very sad part of the job. Everyday, large garbage bins full of food were put outside in a locked area to be picked up for disposal. Employees were not allowed to have any of it. Eggs were a particularly frustrating product – if one egg in a carton cracks, the whole dozen gets thrown out. It broke my heart knowing that people in the community were struggling to get enough food and yet so much was getting thrown out each day.

One day’s worth of bread found in a Panera in Frederick, Maryland. Picture: Rob Greenfield

When I started dumpster-diving, and realised how much food is wasted, I realised – food is not trashed because it’s spoilt. It’s trashed because the concept of a supermarket is predicated on the idea that it can supply everything you need, all the time, all under one roof. This means that supermarkets must constantly be over-supplied in order to guarantee freshness and demand, which creates a massive waste margin. So each week, huge truckloads of fresh produce comes in, and everything unsold from the previous week gets trashed to make room for the new produce.

Items such as fruits, veggies, eggs and milk are often wasted because of their short shelf life. But products are also thrown out simply because they don’t sell. Sometimes because they’re niche products, usually because they’re ridiculously overpriced. Anything paleo, gluten-free, vegan or organic has a pretty good chance of getting binned by mainstream commercial supermarkets who aren’t catering for that particular clientele. 

One or two days worth of dumpster diving in San Diego, California. Picture from Rob Greenfield's blog.
One or two days worth of dumpster diving in San Diego, California. Picture: Rob Greenfield © Rob Greenfield

The quality and quantity of waste is offensive, not just from a food justice perspective, but also from a commercial perspective. Each and every food item wasted represents someone’s hard work and toil. Farmers are up at the crack of dawn and work until sundown to grow and harvest these crops whilst facing constant pressure from supermarket chains to lower their prices. If the supermarket chains insist so aggressively that pricing needs to remain competitive, perhaps a better way to achieve this is to re-examine their internal supply-and-demand chain instead of squeezing profits from their primary suppliers. Farmers should not be expected to carry the burden of affordable produce alone.

Supermarkets provide a valuable essential service to millions of Canadians of all economic backgrounds, not to mention millions of jobs. They are an important part of our economy and our daily life. But as consumers become increasingly interested in the ethics of the businesses they support, supermarkets should do well to pay attention if they wish to remain commercially competitive. 

It’s time to acknowledge that we can do better.