Reducing food waste in Michigan? There’s an app for that
- About 33 percent of the U.S. food supply went unsold or uneaten in 2021, equivalent to almost 149 billion meals.
- In Michigan, 2 billion pounds of food is sent to landfills yearly.
- As pressure mounts to cut back on food waste, some retailers are turning to apps to quickly move food that’s nearing its sell-by date.
For Mary Tamasiunas of Northville, weekly grocery shopping trips start before she leaves home.
Tamasiunas opens an app on her phone, scans the inventory of soon-to-expire food at her local Meijer, and clicks to purchase deeply-discounted items she knows she’ll use before they go bad.
“We’re able to afford meat,” Tamasiunas said. “I’m picking up some meat today, and I’ll just freeze it. I mean, it’s half-off.”
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It’s a win-win: Tamasiunas gets deals on beef roast and pork loins. Meijer makes last-minute sales of items that would otherwise soon be headed for the trash.
The program, a partnership between the Michigan grocery chain and a Canadian app company called Flashfood, represents a growing push by retailers, consumers and regulators to cut back on food waste that makes up 24 percent of America’s municipal landfill use.
In 2021, retailers sent 1.6 million tons of surplus food to landfills, according to ReFED, a national nonprofit focused on reducing food waste. Beyond being a shame in a nation where an estimated 34 million people (including 9 million children) are food insecure, that’s a problem for grocery stores. They take a loss on inventory that doesn’t sell.
“It makes so much sense” to address the problem, said Flashfood Director of Communications Esther Cohn.
In partnering with Flashfood, Meijer cuts back on its share of America’s grocery waste while making affordable food more accessible, said Jess Murray, the Michigan-based grocery chain’s vice president of store operations.
“Food has always been at the heart of what we do as a retailer,” Murray said, “and we want to be sure that we’re taking care of our neighbors first and foremost, as well as responsibly keeping food out of the landfills.”
It’s an issue that vexes food retailers and state environmental regulators, who are looking to improve Michigan’s reputation for wastefulness. The state’s recycling and composting rate of 21 percent is markedly lower than the national average of 32 percent.
“The moment (food) goes into the garbage, it is a literal waste in the sense that dollars worth of time and energy are wasted,” said Aaron Hiday, compost coordinator for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). “It was put there for nothing.”
Meijer didn’t respond to a Bridge Michigan question about how much food it puts in landfills each year. But Murray said Meijer also donates millions of pounds annually to food banks or repurposes food scraps as compost and animal feed.
A growing cadre of businesses have found a new niche within the effort to curb food waste. They include grocery delivery services like Imperfect Foods and Misfits Market, which sell items that don’t meet store standards — think misshapen peaches or granola bars with outdated packaging.
Another is TooGoodToGo, an app that’s active in Chicago and Windsor, where users can buy food that restaurants and bakeries would otherwise toss at the end of the day. Another, Food Rescue US, helps businesses donate surplus food to social service agencies that feed the hungry.
Jeffrey Constantino, a spokesperson for ReFED, said these businesses help make waste-reduction an option for the average person.
“No one wants to waste food, but it's not always easy, affordable, and convenient to do the right thing,” Constantino said.
The food waste problem doesn’t end at the grocery store. Once Michigan residents take those groceries home, nearly 2 billion pounds gets thrown away annually, said Danielle Todd, executive director of Make Food Not Waste, at a recent webinar on the issue.
Michigan regulators are making a renewed push to keep that food out of the trash.
In keeping with a statewide goal to double Michigan’s recycling rate and cut food waste in half by 2030, lawmakers last year passed a wide-ranging rewrite of Michigan’s solid waste laws to discourage waste and support recycling and composting. The state is encouraging those efforts with a grant push for nonprofit and government efforts to prioritize food waste reduction.
Recent grants include $10,000 for a Manistee business that uses worms to turn organic waste into compost, and a nonprofit educational farm to compost kitchen scraps from Northern Michigan University.
Common sense goes a long way, too. Experts said people can cut back on food waste at home by planning grocery store runs to avoid buying things that won’t get eaten, or picking a day each week to “eat down” leftovers.
“Anything you can do to keep food out of the landfill is the most important thing you do in your day,” Todd said. “It’s not something that costs money, in fact it saves you money to actually eat what you buy. It’s not really a sacrifice, it’s a matter of eating it.”
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