“The Plate,” National Geographic • Sept. 15, 2015
When Obama administration officials announce the nation’s first-ever goals for reducing wasted food Wednesday morning, most people probably think of donating surplus food to charity. But a new study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and Cabrini College suggests that part of the solution might be a little more tasty—and profitable: House-made ice cream, freshly fried veggie chips, and smoothies.
Earlier this year, culinary students at Drexel began working with Brown’s Shoprite, a Philadelphia-based supermarket chain, to analyze a month of stores’ typical volume—and content—of food they tossed out as part of an Environmental Protection Agency-backed Food Recovery Challenge. The chain’s surplus food from eleven area stores fell into four categories: A quarter was truly inedible; another fifth was well-suited for charitable donations; and one-tenth was unique and small volume (think kumquats and radicchio).
But 44 percent of the chain’s extra food was edible—if unappealing—produce that showed up regularly in the waste stream: Bananas, apples, potatoes. Those were also the same kinds of foods that pantries often ended up throwing out anyway. And that represented an opportunity to “produce healthier food…at a price point that’s competitive with processed food,” says Tom O’Donnell, a Cabrini College professor and an EPA contractor who co-authored the study.
Drexel students in turn came up with a series of recipes: Frozen banana puree scooped into ice cream; chips made from potatoes and apples, and even a pureed fruit base for smoothies.
And all those recipes prompted the researchers to wonder about profitability. “What if we could go into that store, buy the bananas for pennies on the dollar, make the smoothie base, and wholesale it back at a couple dollars a pound and then the store could retail it?” says Jonathan Deutsch, a study co-author from Drexel. By researchers’ estimates, turning all those bananas into smoothies would have generated $90,000 a month in sales across the chain—and $38,000 in profit.
Concern over wasting food has gone mainstream, singled out by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, private industry leaders,nonprofit advocacy groups—and, with Wednesday’s announcement, the U.S. government. That’s likely due to the scale of the problem.
Each year, roughly one-third of food—and 45 percent of fruits and vegetables—produced globally is thrown away, according to the FAO. Americans toss even more, wasting about 40 percent of our food. That all translates into wasted water, fertilizer and soil, along with increased methane emissions once food—particularly fruits and vegetables—ends up in a landfill.
Still, organized efforts to repurpose imperfect food are relatively rare in the U.S., says Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland. In Europe, French supermarket Intermarché last year announced a campaign to promote the sale of odd-shaped produce that would otherwise be thrown out—“Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables.” But American grocers—who produce about a quarter of the country’s wasted food—have yet to follow suit. (Industry groups are examining their options.)
The closest most U.S. stores get to battling food waste is by creating prepared food sections. Retailers like Wegmans and Whole Foods do offer prepared foods, which can provide a profitable outlet for extra food. But explicitly targeting surplus food for a profitable end is unusual. The best example is likely the Daily Table, a Boston-area supermarket that founder Doug Rauch describes as a nonprofit “health care initiative masquerading as a store.” Stocked primarily with produce gleaned from fields, wholesaler seconds, and other food that might otherwise be thrown away, Daily Table specializes in prepared foods, which make up about half its sales (see Creating Health Care, Disguised as a Grocery Store). But, as a nonprofit, says Rauch, the store’s main goal is to break even.
That makes the Philadelphia project all the more interesting, says Bloom. “When you look at the numbers they are throwing around, it seems like that would get the attention of supermarkets,” says Bloom.
Deutsch and colleagues are trying. They’ve presented their work to industry trade groups, and have been talking with both Brown’s and Giant/Ahold, one of the world’s largest chains, about bringing their idea to market.
But the biggest barrier, cautioned Bloom, might just be branding.
“If there’s an outpouring of interest in odd-shaped vegetables, then this kind of project could really take off,” says Bloom. But “if those produce oddities are deemed another person’s trash, then the project likely won’t succeed.”
That occurred to the Philadelphia researchers, too. When doing low-key tastings of their recipes, says Deutsch, researchers asked tasters whether the source of the ingredients mattered to them. The answer? Not really.
“They don’t care that its food waste, they don’t care that they are helping the environment,” says Deutsch. “They just want to have a delicious apple chip or banana ice cream.”