Food waste goes far beyond banana peels and the moldy mystery leftovers tossed from the back of the fridge. Much of the food that’s wasted is behind the scenes — out of the eyes of the average consumer. Based on a 2022 McKinsey & Company publication, 33 percent to 40 percent of the world’s food supply is wasted.
For years, the retail industry has been challenged by managing food waste. Ordering processes, storage, and aesthetics have influenced the generation of food waste. Not only does food waste represent wasted resources, but it also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions along the supply chain. A United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report estimated that U.S. food loss and waste accounts for the equivalent emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants every year—not including the methane emissions that occur when food is landfilled.
To address food waste within our footprint, Midwest retailer Meijer has leveraged internal process changes and external partnerships in line with the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy. The hierarchy places the highest priority on source reduction, followed by feeding hungry people, feeding animals, industrial use, composting, and ends with landfill/incineration as the least preferred actions. Meijer aligned with the EPA’s food recovery efforts and set a 2030 goal to cut food waste in stores by half. Efforts to date include improving ordering processes, enabling food recovery and discount programs, and leveraging composting and animal feed processing for inedible waste.
To begin at the top of the Food Recovery Hierarchy, Meijer optimized its ordering processes. What was once a manual pen-on-paper act transitioned to a computer-integrated system. Using previous sales data as an input, the stores can more accurately predict the quantities of each product that should be ordered at a given time. The increased accuracy not only cuts down on food waste from product surplus but also reduces the possibility of understocking the store shelves.
Digital ordering systems offer significant reductions in food waste yet may still leave us with excess product nearing the sell-by date. Surplus products nearing their sell-by date are pushed through one of two methods to avoid being landfilled:
- Food Rescue: Meijer partners with Feeding America to maintain a robust network of localized food banks within our six-state footprint. Each Meijer store works with a local food bank that serves its communities in which it operates. Food approaching its sell-by date in all categories, including dairy, fresh produce, meat, bakery, and other assorted products—is directed to each store’s partner food bank and redistributed as needed. In 2021, Meijer donated more than 13.6 million pounds of food — the equivalent of more than 11.3 million meals.
- Digital Discounts: The Flashfood app enables consumers to browse deals on food items that are nearing their best-by dates. Purchases are made directly through the app, and shoppers then pick up their order from the Flashfood Zone located inside their local Meijer store with the help of customer service. Stores post a variety of items to the app daily, including meat, fish, produce, dairy and bakery items, depending on what’s being culled by store teams.
Meijer first partnered with Flashfood in 2019, when it began a four-store pilot program in Grand Rapids, Mich. After a successful pilot, the program rolled out across an estimated 255 Meijer supercenters. The initiative hit its 3 million pound diversion mark in summer 2022.
In-person store markdowns also offer an opportunity for shoppers to purchase surplus or close-dated food items at a discounted price.
Repurposing and Reprocessing
Though food rescue and discounting have greatly reduced the amount of food waste at Meijer, some waste from spoiling and damage is inevitable. All Meijer stores have organic waste collection bins for team members to properly dispose of food that cannot be processed through Feeding America or Flashfood —except for raw meat. Once a week, organic waste is picked up, measured, and brought off-site by a third-party vendor to be converted into animal feed or compost. In 2021, food disposed through this method accounted for approximately 18.9 million pounds of waste diverted.
Manufacturing and Distribution Centers
While our retail stores make up much of the food waste within our operations, Meijer also owns and operates manufacturing facilities and distribution centers. Diverting waste in these locations has been an ongoing priority — both food waste and other waste streams. Given the niche operations of each facility, their diversion programs differ based on their primary waste sources. For example, the Meijer Purple Cow Creamery, a dairy manufacturing facility in Tipp City, Ohio turns over milk waste to a vendor that can reuse it as feed for livestock. At another site in Grandville, Mich., Meijer works with a local composter to give food waste a second life.
The Future of Food Waste
To date, Meijer has made great strides toward the goal to cut store food waste in half by 2030. Improving order accuracy, food donation and discounting programs, and animal feed and composting outlets have been effective methods to reduce food waste throughout the company’s operations. Implementing and maintaining these programs and partnerships requires piloting, team member education, and continued engagement, but the sustainability impact outweighs the challenges. Meijer looks forward to maintaining current diversion programs and pursuing ways that additional food waste can be kept out of the landfill.
About the Author:
Annalise Steketee, Sustainability Analyst, Meijer
Annalise Steketee is an advocate for sustainability prioritization in the business space. Following her graduation from the University of Michigan, Annalise joined Meijer’s Environmental team in 2021 to focus on sustainability initiatives across the organization. She leads the company’s Sustainability Council, which is a cross-functional internal group committed to Meijer’s four sustainability pillars: carbon emissions reduction, food waste reduction, circular economy, and Great Lakes stewardship.
Meijer is a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based retailer that operates 499 supercenters, neighborhood markets and Express locations throughout Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Wisconsin. A privately-owned and family-operated company since 1934, Meijer pioneered the “one-stop shopping” concept and has evolved through the years to include expanded fresh produce and meat departments, as well as pharmacies, comprehensive apparel departments, pet departments, garden centers, toys and electronics. For additional information on Meijer, please visit www.meijer.com. Follow Meijer on Twitter at twitter.com/Meijer and twitter.com/MeijerPR or become a fan at www.facebook.com/meijer.
- Reducing food loss. McKinsey & Company https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/consumer-packaged-goods/our-insights/reducing-food-loss-what-grocery-retailers-and-manufacturers-can-do
- “Food Waste and its Links to Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change.” USDA. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2022/01/24/food-waste-and-its-links-greenhouse-gases-and-climate-change
- “Food Recovery Hierarchy.” US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/food-recovery-hierarchy
- Meijer plans to calculate progress toward this goal with a food diversion percentage calculation. Goal completion would equate to 50% diversion of store food waste.
- Feeding America calculates the meal equivalency metric based on the USDA guidance of 1.2 pounds of food and grocery product per meal. https://www.feedingamerica.org/ways-to-give/faq/about-our-claims
This article is posted as part of our ongoing business and sustainability conversation which is funded by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.