Imagine making thousands of dollars a month for something you’re going to throw away. Oh yeah—and you’d be helping feed hungry people.
Sound good? According to a pilot project in West Philadelphia, it’s entirely possible for grocery stores. And the folks involved are hoping that when the pope visits the City of Brotherly Love next month, they can show the world a new way to deal with the global problem of food waste.
Philadelphia researchers, along with federal officials and local organizations, have been gathering food that would otherwise be wasted from a local supermarket chain, Brown’s Super Stores, to put it to good use. And their numbers suggest it’s working.
They tallied up some numbers from April: 35,000 pounds of produce was gathered from 11 area Brown’s Super Stores; 22,000 pounds was good to eat (most produce on grocery shelves is discarded because of the way it looks or to make room for fresher shipments).
Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania researchers estimated one-third of that load could go directly to food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters, where it would feed the hungry. Philadelphia struggles with a 26 percent poverty rate, more than double the rest of the state.
“We wanted to cull food that would be wasted but we had to focus on poverty, on people who were actually hungry,” said Solomon Katz, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Krogman Growth Center, who helped get the project going. “We had to see with poverty where we could make significant differences. Food waste was the lowest hanging fruit on the tree, so to speak.”
The remainder—more than 15,000 pounds—was fast approaching its use-by date and could be used for food research and development, or used in a recipe and then fed to folks. Some of the produce that couldn’t be used at local pantries was given to Drexel University Food Lab students, who quickly made it into recipes that could be used locally.
Take bananas as an example, said Jonathan Deutsch, professor and director of culinary arts and food science at Drexel University who helped lead the repurposing would-be wasted food aspect of the project.
Browning, bruised bananas don’t get eaten—even when the people are hungry. But puree and freeze overripe bananas and you have banana ice cream, Deutsch said. “Now you offer people in West Philadelphia in the summer banana ice cream, they’re thrilled.”
They also found it’s a win-win. According to April’s numbers, the bounty could yield about $8,700 a month for the supermarkets—25 cents per pound—from giving the culled produce away.
“We are encouraged that the economic opportunities may launch new methods to reduce all of the various impacts of food waste while creating new sources of healthy foods and jobs where both are in high demand,” the authors wrote in a report on the project published in Food and Nutrition Sciences last month.
The project isn’t without challenges though, Deutsch said. The most obvious one is getting people to eat something that could be considered garbage.
“People get worried that surplus food means rotten food,” he said. “We’ve done some swabs, and there’s no reason to suspect the food is not as safe as it could be or as safe as it would be in a supermarket.”
The other challenge is picking up the food, dropping it off and making sure it doesn’t go bad in the meantime—common problems for anyone trying to reduce food waste, said David Fikes, vice president of consumer and community affairs with the U.S.-based Food Marketing Institute.
“A lot of it is just a pure logistical challenge,” Fikes said. “Something like a lack of refrigeration in food banks.” Along with the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the National Restaurant Association, the Food Marketing Institute is part of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, which seeks to reduce food waste. The alliance came together a few years ago and includes big names like ConAgra Foods and Wegman’s Supermarkets.
Food waste is a problem around the world. Globally one-third of all the food produced gets discarded, a mounting problem for both water use, landfills and climate change.
Supermarkets scrap a lot—as high as 20 percent of their food, according to a 2009 study. A lot of produce is scrapped because people are picky and want their tomatoes perfectly round and bananas without marks.
Things have gotten better as stores are increasingly sending scrapped produce somewhere other than the landfill. The Food Waste Reduction Alliance estimates that about 40 percent of wasted food from grocery stories is donated or recycled, according to a 2014 survey of its members.
Some is composted too, which is mostly what Brown’s supermarkets in Philadelphia were doing before the project.
Keeping food out of landfills is good for the climate too. Rotting food creates methane, a climate warming gas that is 23 times more potent that carbon dioxide. Less food waste also means less wasted water, chemicals and energy that produced it.
But the waste continues as people around the world go without. About 800 million people in the world are malnourished, according to the United Nations, and billions don’t have stable, secure access to food. These numbers will go up, as there will be an estimated 2.5 billion more people on Earth in 2050.
Fikes said some next steps to tackle things nationally would be to expand the number of stores that repurpose their waste and address the problem of wasted food from consumers. “No one wants to see food wasted,” he said.
Repurposing supermarket waste might not solve the problem—but it’s a start, Katz said. And he said the timing is perfect, as Pope Francis will visit Philadelphia in September for the World Meeting of Families.
“Can we make this a learning experience so they [visitors for the meeting] can bring this back to their own communities?” Katz said. “We need to demonstrate to those with a hard nose, OK, what’s the magnitude of impact to this?”
Katz, Deutsch and others continue working with Brown’s stores. Deutsch said, as promising as the April report was, summer months yield even more surplus food and more opportunities to feed people.
He said “phase two” of the project is to try and commercialize some of the work. For example, if they take the surplus food approaching its sell-by date and turn it into something tasty (think smoothies, kale chips), they could then resell it to the supermarket, closing the loop.
This too won’t be easy–cooks usually decide on a dish, then purchase ingredients they need. In this case, they would be at the mercy of what surplus food they’re given.
But they remain optimistic.
“We’re excited … new foods and new economic potentials from food that would normally be wasted,” Katz said. “The world needs to have a rapid relaxation on the need to produce more food.”
This post originally appeared on Environmental Health News.