Unpopped popcorn kernels from movie theaters. Pre-wrapped cheese plates for airline passengers. These are just a few of the unexpected food resources that, due to social distancing recommendations, are going to waste during the coronavirus pandemic.
True, reducing food waste might not be one of the top-of-mind priorities right now for many of us, including airlines and movie theaters. But as Dana Gunders, Executive Director of ReFed, pointed out during yesterday’s COVID-19 Virtual Strategy Summit, as the coronavirus shakes up the food system from top to bottom, our food waste patterns are shifting too. “There’s enormous volatility in the system right now,” she said.
As we shutter restaurants, Gunders explained that we’ve cut off the supply chain to half of the food system. With that outlet closed, farms, processors, and distributors that typically work with foodservice are eyeing the grocery market and trying to establish new sales channels. Gunders walked us through how each sector of the food ecosystem is experiencing change — and what that means for food waste.
Farms, many of which rely on restaurant partners to sell their goods, are trying to pivot to find new retail channels. “But it’s not that instant,” Gunders said. She explained that instead, millions of pounds of green beans, tomatoes, and cabbage are getting tilled under because farmers can’t find outlets for them. So until farmers are able to forge new partnerships for e-commerce and D2C delivery, farm waste will increase.
Processors and Manufacturers
With retail shopping on the rise, Gunders said that processors and manufacturers, such as CPG brands, are seeing up to triple the typical demand. But they’re also trying to navigate social distancing regulations and employee illnesses, which negatively affects their production capacity. This is bad news for upcyclers — companies that make goods out of traditional waste products, like spent grain from breweries — who are suddenly having difficulty sourcing their raw materials.
When foodservice entities are forced to shut down and cancel their orders, distributors are the ones stuck with extra product. Distributors are seeking new retail channels to find an outlet for these leftover foods — but Gunders pointed out that the food is not often packaged for retail sales (e.g. the aforementioned popcorn kernels and cheese trays).
Grocery and Retail
If you read The Spoon on the reg, or have gone shopping for toilet paper over the last month, you know that grocery stores and retailers have been experiencing a huge boom. At the same time, grocery stores are having difficulty forecasting how much to stock, since demand is so volatile right now. And as Gunders pointed out, volatility leads to challenges in purchasing, which could actually lead to more food waste on the grocery level.
Restaurants and Foodservice
As we know, restaurants and foodservice establishments have been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus epidemic. Forced closures over the past few weeks led to an initial spike in donations to food banks as restaurants tried to avoid throwing away food — the donations were too much for the system to handle in some cases, said Gunders. But as restaurants stay closed, these donations are now dropping off. There are also challenges around logistics; transporting food donations the last mile can be tricky when restaurants have laid off employees and volunteerism is down.
One of Gunders’ biggest takeaways from the summit is that COVID-19 is forcing us all to be a lot more conscious about what food we’re buying and how we’re using it. When going to the grocery store means standing in line for an hour, you’re forced to be more strategic about how to use up food you already have at home — and that means less food waste. At the same time, Gunders pointed out that hoarding behavior at the grocery store can lead to more food waste when people discover they didn’t actually need that 6-pack of brie cheese wheels.
As more people cook at home, we’re also gaining kitchen skills. These could serve us going forward; consumers will learn how to freeze, preserve, and make use of their food, instead of just throwing it away. Gunders also said that people might begin to eat food that’s past its “sell by” date, which is notorious for being confusing and overly conservative. It’s also an opportunity for the adoption of smart kitchen tech which helps use up food, like IoT-connected containers or meal planning resources.
The majority of food waste right now happens within the home. If we start being more conscious about our food, and how we consume and preserve it, the COVID-19 outbreak could actually be a significant opportunity to cut food waste. But only if we all do our part.
You can watch the full session with Dana Gunders below or check it out on Crowdcast.