Food Wasteland: A Local Story of Excess

North Texas is throwing away a deplorable amount of food. Why is it happening, and what can be done to prevent it?

| photography by Alex Lepe |

A man stops by his Fort Worth grocery store deli counter to pick up a late dinner for his family. As the store employee puts the eighth piece of chicken in the box, she continues to add more. As he alerts her of his original order, she lets him know that they have to throw everything out that night anyway, so she is going to give him a few extra pieces. The man takes his bag of prepared dishes, looks down at the row of half-empty serving bowls of salads, meats and casseroles and thinks, What a waste.

Currently in the U.S., 40 percent of our food supply ends up in the garbage. One of the biggest issues in agriculture today is how to feed the 9 billion people on this planet by 2050. It is estimated that we would need to grow 60 percent more food than we currently produce.

But there’s more to it than just running out of food. The methane gas generated from the food waste in landfills is 20 to 25 times more potent than CO2. Another environmental consideration is the high carbon footprint yielded when the waste is picked up and hauled to the landfill. The cost of disposal makes a significant impact on businesses. In all, it is estimated that $165 billion is squandered each year on perfectly edible food that goes uneaten.

Larger entities such as restaurants, supermarkets, hospitals, schools and produce dealers are major contributors to the food waste dilemma. We talked to a North Texas restaurant owner and a grocery store owner about creative ways in which they work to decrease waste.

Local sustainability advocates are paying attention and making a plan of action. Several North Texas organizations are working to make it easier for vendors to donate food by acting as middlemen between supermarkets, hotels or restaurants and food providers like shelters and food pantries. Local food banks are also taking action by partnering with hundreds of grocery stores for weekly pick-ups that feed the nearly 300,000 people in this city that live in food insecure households.

Eliminating food waste begins with prevention. Living in a reactive society, it’s seldom that things really change until the crisis is upon us, including our cavalier attitudes about food. The main question becomes, Why can’t we or won’t we simply waste less?

Commercial–sized restaurant freezers are filled with food that will often go to waste.

Fare Code The City of Fort Worth’s Consumer Health division inspects restaurants and other food establishments to keep Fort Worth residents safe from food-borne diseases.

Many are under the misconception that food donation goes against health regulations. That isn’t the case. Under Texas Food Establishments Rule 228.83, food donation is permissible with certain guidelines.

Wendy Turpin, supervisor with the City of Fort Worth Code Compliance Department, says, “Texas Food Establishment Rules allow for the donation of food if you donate in a safe manner to a recipient that can serve it safely. The Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act is similar to the Good Samaritan law where people are legally protected if they are helping someone in good faith.”

Foods that have been previously served to a consumer may not be donated. That would include food left on the plates of restaurant patrons or items that have been shared in a buffet.

The biggest hurdle food establishments face when wanting to donate food is the requirement of time/temperature monitoring. Food must have been kept at or above 135 degrees during hot holding and service and refrigerated to meet time and temperature requirements. The food donor must substantiate that the food recipient has the facilities to meet the transportation, storage and reheating requirements. At the time of donation, the food must be at or below 41 degrees and protected from contamination.

“There isn’t a good vehicle for getting the food from the restaurant to the donation outlet. Normally the nonprofits don’t have the resources to go and pick up the food. Depending on the food, you may need refrigerated trucks, which are very expensive,” Turpin says.

In addition, donated foods require labels with the name and source of the food and the date of preparation. Dented canned foods or packaged foods without the manufacturer’s complete labeling cannot be donated. Also foods that are considered distressed, such as items that have been exposed to fire, flooding, excessive heat, smoke, radiation, environmental contamination or prolonged storage can’t be donated for consumption.

So then the question becomes, If it’s legal, why aren’t more establishments donating rather than filling the dumpster out back? One reason for this is that many vendors don’t want to be liable if the food they provide gets someone sick. Giving away their leftovers isn’t worth the risk in their eyes. Another reason is logistics. There may not be adequate space to store the leftover food while waiting for agencies to pick it up.

Shelves of food at the Tarrant Area Food Bank.

In the Market The percentage of waste at supermarkets is staggering. One major factor is the assumption that customers are more likely to buy produce or items in a display case if it is fully stocked. That leads to an excess of meats and prepared dishes and the damaging of items on the bottom layer of produce pyramids.

“Prepared foods in the cases are all labeled. Store employees must keep track of how long the food has been out or opened. Once it reaches a certain date, it must be discarded,” Turpin says.

Kurt Jaeger, owner of City Market in Burleson, has been in the grocery store business for 41 years. He works hard to reduce food waste in his store and has creative methods for doing so. “There are ways to make the meat and seafood case look fuller, like moving the racks up. My philosophy is that I’d rather have it fresh than overstocked.”

Store smorgasbords of prepared dishes often don’t get completely consumed before being tossed. It is impossible to predict the weekly tastes of shoppers.

Jaeger takes food safety seriously. “We monitor our temps three times a day. Our meats are kept at a certain temperature, and items like our salads get four days before we have to throw them out.”

Another expectation of customers is that retailers offer perfect-looking produce. This means that even if the quality isn’t compromised, farms avoid selling the so-called “B” stock to supermarkets. If some of this produce does make it to the store floor, it is usually taken out of stock.

Sell-by dates can be misleading. Most of the public doesn’t understand the difference between expiration, sell-by, use-by and best-by dates (see sidebar for definitions of these terms). Sellers and consumers assume that the food items are no longer good after these dates, but most foods are in fact good long after the sell-by date. Because stores fear that patrons will not buy the food or think the store is carrying bad product, these items are pulled out of stock sometimes days before the sell-by date.

While Jaeger donates certain food from the City Market, there are some things he isn’t comfortable giving away. “I try not to donate items that are out of date or close to expiration. I feel like everyone deserves something fresh. Just because somebody doesn’t have a job doesn’t mean they want food that’s substandard. I also won’t take a chance on donating items that are egg or mayo based.”

Damaged product packaging is another way in which food gets wasted. Even if the food hasn’t been compromised, a store won’t put out a dented box of Fruity Pebbles. Unpopular or promotional items are also often tossed.

So while it is true that supermarkets could definitely be doing more to avoid waste, much of the problem is with the public’s picky buying trends. Things might change if consumers were willing to eat a banana with a few brown spots or yogurt after the sell-by date.

Volunteers sort donated produce at the Tarrant Area Food Bank.

Dinner Is Served Cafeterias and buffets, including those at hospitals, schools and restaurants, have serious plate waste issues. Because consumers can fill multiple plates, often with the option to refill indefinitely, cafeterias and buffet restaurants must leave large amounts of food sitting out all day. Once that food has been put out, it can’t be donated to a food bank for health reasons.

A small minority of college and business cafeterias is working on a solution by eliminating trays. This limits the amount of food they can take and has proved successful with a decrease of waste by 25 – 30 percent.

Something as simple as switching the size of plates in a restaurant can make an enormous difference. In recent years, plates on which food is served have grown bigger. The Delboeuf Illusion explains why a serving size would appear smaller when more white space surrounds the food on the plate. If restaurants would serve smaller portions on smaller plates, they could create less kitchen and plate waste, and customers don’t feel cheated about the portion size.

Jerrett Joslin, executive chef of The Wild Mushroom Steak House and the Vintage Grill and Car Museum, says that plating is all about perception. “We control portion sizes so people don’t leave a lot on the plate. It’s true that the same thing that fits on a big plate can also fit in a smaller bowl, but we tend to stick with 10-inch rounds or squares. That’s pretty standard. We may use different sized glasses to provide the illusion of more,” Joslin says.

Chef Eric Hunter of the Fire Oak Grill caters his menu around seasonally and locally grown ingredients. He shares why his restaurant has so little waste. “Everything we use can also be used for something else. For instance, the trim from our fish dishes goes into the fish tacos. Additionally, we don’t put too much food on the plate. We want our guests to try multiple items during their visit.”

Fast food restaurants are food waste offenders too. Due to managers attempting to anticipate changing consumer demand and ensuring that they are never out of an item, they order more food than space will allow. Constantly preparing food items that are only retained for brief stints of time, many food items will be tossed before reaching consumers’ vehicles or tables. For instance, McDonald’s makes its popular French fries throughout the day, but each batch can only sit for a very short period of time before they are discarded.

On a recent trip to Dunkin’ Donuts in Parker County, an employee spoke about a new offer. If customers let the donut chain select which donuts are included in the dozen, they are awarded a free donut. It’s a way to ensure that the day’s least popular donuts find a home and aren’t wasted at the end of the day.

Bennett Cepak, Tarrant Area Food Bank associate executive director, says, “Restaurant donations play a very small role in our operation. We are set up for full truckloads of food. It’s just not conducive to what we do. We do large bulk.”

One Man’s Trash A good deal of the resistance comes from hotels and restaurants, many of which are not properly educated on liability issues and have logistical problems implementing a system to save their wasted food.

Recently an Equitable Food Systems Summit was held in Fort Worth, bringing together food distributors, service providers, grocery stores and local policy makers to discuss, among other things, ways in which to decrease food waste.

It’s ironic that bordering the city’s most food-deprived zones are stores that are throwing away perfectly good groceries on a daily basis. The Tarrant Area Food Bank (TAFB) estimates that 280,000 people in Fort Worth live in a food desert.

With its eight 24-foot refrigerated trucks, the TAFB picks up from 172 stores. “Food banking from the very beginning was about rescuing food that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Our fleet of trucks goes out on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays around 6 a.m. to pick up food from stores. They are back by noon, and then volunteers sort and check for wholesomeness. Distribution occurs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. We endeavor to turn the product around within 24 hours because many of the items are highly perishable,” Cepak says.

Todd Collier, director of FoodSourceDFW, connects donors with charities. In 2015 FoodSourceDFW recovered nearly 500,000 pounds of food. “We are in the business of saying yes to food. Basically our main focus is streamlining the logistics of getting donated food to our partner organizations. We don’t store or warehouse. We facilitate the transport.”

Collier explains why more organizations don’t donate. “Donors get so frustrated and dump food because people won’t come pick the food up in a timely manner, and donors just don’t have the space to store it.”

Seeing this problem while visiting her local Starbucks 15 years ago, Pam Johndroe took matters into her own hands. Johndroe has long been affiliated with the Ronald McDonald House of Fort Worth. All she had to do was ask, and Starbucks was happy to donate as long as Johndroe was willing to deliver the items.

But she didn’t stop there. Now Johndroe leaves home every morning at 5:30 to make pick-ups at Starbucks, Nothing Bundt Cakes, Einstein Bros. Bagels or Dale’s Donuts and takes them to the families at The Ronald McDonald House. “Einstein’s gives me a couple hundred bagels a day. I sack them up and take them to the Ronald McDonald families that are at Cook Children’s. They call me the Bagel Fairy. It makes me so happy to help so many people, especially the children.”

Solving our food waste problem by changing bad habits will take a joint effort by local government, private food establishments, nonprofit organizations and consumers. Johndroe understood this 15 years ago and became a solitary army against the waste epidemic. It proves that even one can make a significant difference.

Understanding Food Labels

Food packaging contains valuable information including whether or not the food item is still safe to eat. Here are helpful definitions to allow consumers to better understand food label terminology.

Open Dating: This allows the store to determine how long to display the product for sale and uses a calendar date as opposed to a code. Open dates are found primarily on perishable foods such as dairy or meat products.

Closed Dating: Also referred to as coded dating, these are packing numbers used by the manufacturer and are often found on shelf-stable products such as canned or boxed foods.

Sell By: This tells the store the last day they can sell that specific product. As a consumer, this date represents the last day the product should be bought from the store.

Best If Used By: Not technically a safety-related date, this term refers to when the consumer should prepare the food for optimal flavor or quality.

Use By: This is the last date recommended for use of product according to the manufacturer.

In addition to utilizing the above terms, to reduce the risk of food poisoning, it is important to properly store and handle food items. Separating raw from ready-to-eat foods, cooking foods at proper temperatures and refrigerating or freezing foods promptly are other factors to take into account.