Zero FOOD waste shopping
For 4 years I used to have a shop for organic Real Food in Brussels (I then closed it for personal reasons). This shop used to function in a completely different way than other shops and - as a consequence - was 100% FOOD waste free. In this article I explain what I - and especially my customers - did differently. My aim is not to put down anyone, but simply to show that alternatives do exist and that if we are ready to adapt our behaviour, we can achieve dramatic results together.
Introduction to the problem
Food waste is a huge problem – on a global scale the FAO estimates that every year we throw away 1/3 of the food we produce (about 1.300.000.000.000 kg of still edible food)!
Consequences are dramatic for the planet, the animals, the farmers and us people! Not only does the production of what eventually goes to waste artificially increase food prices, use up precious resources and create greenhouse gases, but it also contributes to unsustainable mass-farming practices, the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of food markets in poor countries (because this is where we often dump our surplus production).
Need for a holistic approach
Loss occurs along the whole supply chain, starting at production and harvest, continuing during transport and storage and ending at the retail shops and in our kitchens. In order to reduce food waste, it needs to be tackled at each level. In order to do so efficiently, we have to look at the whole system to find and then correct the root causes of the problem, rather than treating symptoms on the isolated levels. It doesn't really help if a supermarket chain can claim that they only have 2,7% of food waste (which in absolute terms still is A LOT) and that the industry accounts for 50%, if it is the very supermarkets that are making it possible for the industries to sell their products. We need a holistic approach, understanding that what happens on one level has an impact on all the other levels as well (e.g. short-circuit distribution requires shorter storage and transport and less packaging and favors the sale of less beautiful produce).
Food waste inherent to our current distribution system
Our food chain as it is today is a “push” system, meaning that production or order quantities are based on forecast demand (or on subsidies) - not on ACTUAL demand and as such inherently imply error and easily lead to overproduction and WASTE – on the farmer’s level, the wholesale level and of course on the shop level. No matter how well the shop plans, it will never be able to completely match supply and demand for each and every item – especially since it needs to buy in pre-defined batch sizes from the wholesaler (e.g. 25 kg of carrots).
This is true for conventional supermarkets as well as for bio-shops and even farmers' markets! In fact I’ve talked to a few people that worked in organic shops that got quite disillusioned about the quantities of food that are thrown away also in this sector. If they are lucky, they can solve part of the problem by using those unsold (or sorted out) foods to prepare ready-to-eat take-away food (let's forget for a moment that our planet is suffocating in plastic...), by letting employees take them for own usage or collaborating with food banks. However, that’s not allowed in all countries nor will it be enough to deal with all those quantities! The rest will be used for animal feed, bio gas or simply be burnt - processes that consume even more resources!
Zero waste supermarkets
Recently, we see more and more so-called “zero waste” supermarkets being developed that try to reduce packaging and food waste by offering foods in bulk, claiming that like this, consumers only need to buy what they really need. While such developments are a great step into the right direction, they are in fact more “zero packaging waste” stores, than “zero food waste” stores. The main two reasons for that are:
- They still “push” their offer on the consumer and thus have to estimate what quantities of fresh foods to take on stock – and they will still be faced with unsold quantities at the end of the day – just like any other supermarket offering fruits and vegetables in bulk.
- By also offering nuts and grains etc. in bulk, they actually increase their risk of food waste, because those foods stay fresh longer in a packaging, but go rancid quicker when in bulk, so a shop needs to have a sufficiently high turnover to prevent a whole lot from going bad. It should also be noted that they do not eliminate packaging waste, since the shop still buys those products in a packaging, just a bigger one (5kg or 25kg bags instead of 200g bags).
10 ways how to dramatically reduce food waste
Metabolance used to function in a completely different way than other shops. In fact, I had completely left the “supermarket” or “push offer” box and created a new concept, combining the “pull” of a bio basket system, with the flexibility and choice of a farmer’s market. As a result, I am proud to say that Metabolance was 100% food waste free. There was not one apple, not one piece of meat, not one liter of fresh milk, not one loaf of fresh bread that got wasted. On top, my system also helped to reduce food waste on the other levels, so the problem didn't just get pushed further up or down the supply chain.
Here's how shopping at Metabolance dramatically reduced food waste:
- At Metabolance, you had to pre-order your food. Once a week, you combined your own bio basket, choosing from 100% organic, local and seasonal produce and a selection of dry foods and non-food items. This reduced food waste along the whole supply chain:
- The farmer could better plan his sales and production. Ideally, if he got an order for 10 salads for example, he would only pick those 10 salads from the field and left the others out there for the week after. Or at least he knew not to deliver 20, of which 10 would end up in the bin. When it comes to animal foods, pre-ordering was even more important, since it allowed him to know how many animals he would need to sacrifice. He can thus serve MORE people with the same amount of produce OR reduce his production scale to serve the same amount of people.
- As a shop owner, I only ordered what my clients ordered, so no waste at the store-level.
- As a consumer, you were forced to roughly plan your meals ahead. You were more likely to only buy what you needed and waste less. You were not tempted to buy processed junk food on your way to check-out or to give in to this 2+1 promotion. All this ended up saving you money, while getting higher quality.
- At Metabolance, I did not source fresh food from the wholesalers, but collaborated directly with local farmers’ cooperatives. Like that I could offer the whole bounty of local and seasonal foods (fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggs, bread, meat, fish…) and still benefit from small purchase intervals. Whatever did not go into your baskets, is what I took home for myself and it was just about right for one week.
- At Metabolance, 100% of the fresh food was local and seasonal. Nothing got imported, no wholesalers in between. Thus the distribution circuit was short, which reduced the risk of spoilage.
- At Metabolance, I didn't apply supermarket standards when it came to appearance or calibration of the produce. The farmer would also be able to sell those carrots or cucumbers that didn't comply with supermarket or bio shop “beauty” standards.
- At Metabolance, there was no “fixed” basket you needed to take - I let you choose which vegetables you liked, so you ate them and didn’t throw them out. Depending on your household size, you could order them in smaller or bigger pre-defined quantities (e.g. intervals of 500g of carrots, or 3 kg of carrots).
- At Metabolance, I valued animal foods! I regularly offered fresh meat packages on preorder, which allowed the farmer to sell all parts of the animal instead of just the popular steak. However, I mainly worked with (freshly) frozen meat & fish. Freezing allowed to bridge gaps between supply and demand, which was especially important to avoid the waste of animals! On top of that, I sourced all my animal foods from small-scale, local and sustainable projects. The animals were not soy or corn fed (which wastes a lot of resources), but the cows grazed on grass, and when they were eventually sacrificed, all parts were used, incl. the bones and organs (I educated my customers on how to use those cheap cuts to prepare nourishing meals). I did not offer any farmed fish, which again wastes precious resources, but only wild fish from a small-scale, sustainable project that didn't create unnecessary by-catch. In fact, their ambition was to use everything they fish, and to throw nothing back into the sea. So they also offered fish you might not yet have been familiar with!
- At Metabolance, I on purpose limited my portfolio to Real Food, meaning food as it could be found in nature, unprocessed or only minimally processed.
- At Metabolance, I only offered one brand of each item, in order to create sufficient turnover and avoid product expiration.
- If ever it DID happen that a product got close to or passed its "best before" date. I still offer it at a reduced price and educated my customers on the difference between the mandatory "use by" date for fresh produce, and the orientative "best before" date for dry foods.
- I also gave lots of advice on storage and preparation and provide recipes, so that my customers could make the best out of the great food they buy from me.
And what about the packaging-waste?
Besides food waste, I also kept packaging waste to a minium:
- All the fruits and vegetables were packed in re-usable paper bags or biodegradable "freshness" bags made from corn starch.
- The yogurt as well as one of the raw milks were available in glass bottles.
- All paper bags, egg boxes and jars could be brought back and they would be reused (if still in good shape).
- Packages for online orders of dry foods were sent out re-using boxes from my suppliers.
- I prefered glass jars over tins for dry foods. The only food that came in tins was coconut milk (BPA-free tins) and the canned fish.
- There was some plastic packaging in the dry food section, although some was biodegradable plastic (e.g. Sonnentor spices). I did not sell bulk grains and nuts on purpose, since those products are fragile and can oxidize quickly.
- In the fresh food section, the meat and fish came wrapped in plastic. Some of the milk bottles were plastic as well. I still chose to carry those products for their superior nutritional value.
The example of my shop shows that food waste can indeed be reduced dramatically. However, it is only possible, if we all do our part and are ready to change our behavior: the distributors as well as the consumers.
If we want a different result, we cannot continue doing the same thing.
If I was able to achieve the results I did, it's only because my customers were willing to accept that the produce was not available 24/7 all year round. They didn’t expect exotic foods and they traded in the availability of tomatoes in winter for tomatoes with a real taste when they were actually in season. They traded in the “pseudo” variety of supermarkets for getting to know old varieties of apples, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes... or forgotten vegetables, like topinambur, rutabaga or black salsify.
While shopping at a shop like Metabolance might seem a little inconvenient at first sight, at a second glance, it is actually VERY convenient, because all you have to do is to pass an online order and then pick up your pre-ordered food package a few days later - and then you are free for the rest of the week, without having to spend precious weekend or evening time cueing at the check-out of over-crowded supermarkets.
Am I suggesting that you should pre-order ALL of your food or that this kind of "pull" food distribution could substitute all of the existing "push" food distribution? Obviously not. People will always want to spontaneously buy and eat. I want that too, from time to time. So I don't think a 100% change is realistic nor necessary. But if we all did it for only 50% of our grocery needs, it would already make a huge difference over time.