Discarded Food and Misguided Outrage

Feb. 18, 2021

Let's give needy people access to something better than garbage.

There’s a political blog I often engage with, because I enjoy the writing, and because both the writers and the regular commenters all share my point of view.

Usually.

There was a notable exception a few weeks ago, when we somehow got onto the subject of a Whole Foods store that throws out its unsold hot lunch buffet items at the end of the day – into a secured container. The purpose of securing it to keep homeless or other needy people from accessing it. The consensus was that this was terrible.

I pointed out that just throwing away cooked food and letting anyone and everyone have at it would almost certainly lead to food poisoning, which homeless people don’t need on top of all their other problems. I tried not to “mansplain” or otherwise condescend, but I still got, as the kids say, flamed.

That came to mind when I saw news reports about a clash that occurred in the parking lot of a Fred Meyer supermarket in Portland, Ore. The recent winter storm had knocked out power for so long that the store felt compelled to discard huge quantities of meat and other perishable items.

Several dozen people congregated at the trash bin where the food was discarded to try to grab some of it. When store employees attempted to shoo them away, they got into an argument that escalated to the point where police were called.

Photos of a huge bin filled to overflowing with food circulated on social media, stoking outrage. A local news reporter held out a big jug of almond milk, retrieved from the bin, to the camera, noting that its expiration date was months away.

Fred Meyer (a unit of Kroger) gamely put out a statement noting that the store threw the food away because it didn’t want anyone getting sick, but critics weren’t hearing it. Twitter was ablaze with phrases like “such an insulting action to those in need” and “throwing away perfectly good food is morally bankrupt.”

First of all, let’s not lose sight of the big picture: In the richest country on Earth, it’s necessary to call the police to keep citizens from eating out of trash bins. That is a national shame and a disgrace.

But I firmly believe that in this case, it was necessary. I don’t care how many safe-looking items were cherry-picked out of that bin by zealous TV reporters. To safely and, yes, humanely donate perishable food products to the hungry, you need a system. You need a reliable cold chain with secure deliveries, and that means controls, protocols, and safety testing and monitoring. Giving people free access to products that have been out of the cold chain for hours or days is nothing but a recipe for disaster. It's literally feeding them garbage.

The problem is that in this case, logic simply can’t compete with sentiment. People don’t understand cold chains and pathogen windows. They do understand (or think they do) pictures of mounds of food that doesn’t look like there’s anything wrong with it sitting in the trash.

This is why anti-food waste imperatives like the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, a venture of the Consumer Brands Association, the National Restaurant Association and FMI – the Food Industry Association, are so important. The three goals are to reduce food waste at the point of processing (or upstream), donate it safely to those in need, and recycle “unavoidable food waste” by turning it to compost or some other useful material.

Waste is a bigger problem for the food industry than it might seem, and not just because it loses money. A good-faith effort to combat waste, preferably by helping needy people, is the only practical way for the industry to turn around the perception problem caused by things like police having to guard dumpsters against hungry people.

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