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Food Waste Diversion

Sprouts helps the community and environment with its food rescue program

Recycling is not new for most retailers, but grocery stores face a different challenge as they evaluate sustainable practices to minimize food waste that must be transported to landfills.

At Sprouts Farmers Market, the goal is to divert 90 percent of waste from landfills by 2020. A combination of recycling programs that address packaging as well as food waste will help the grocer reach the goal, according to Justin Kacer, Sustainability Specialist at Sprouts. “This is a steep goal, but we have support throughout the organization – it is part of our corporate culture.”

Food waste diversion efforts include two initiatives – the Food Rescue Program and the Food Waste to Farms Program. The combination of the two programs, along with other recycling initiatives has eliminated 50 percent of the grocer’s waste that goes to landfills.

Donating to community food banks is a natural fit for grocers with food that cannot be sold to the public. Although many Sprouts stores were donating to local food banks prior to 2013, the Food Rescue Program was formalized that year to set guidelines that expanded the type of food items donated and ensured safe, appropriate donations that minimized risk to the company, explained Kacer. “We researched food safety guidelines, established criteria for donation and created agreements that formalize the partnerships between Sprouts and food banks.”

For example, although Sprouts could control quality of food and proper handling before donation, not all food banks have the facilities to handle refrigerated items. Before receiving refrigerated items, a food bank must document the ability to transport cold items with a refrigerated truck and the ability to store the items at the appropriate temperature.

“We also ask our food bank partners to report how much food and what type of food they receive from each store,” said Kacer. This reporting, along with in-store reports, provides visibility into how much food waste goes to food banks, farms or landfills – which provides the opportunity to adjust the stock ordering process to reduce shrinkage rates.

A specific storage area for food bank donations is established in each store so Sprouts’ team members know where to place food that is to be donated. In addition to employee training that covers Food Rescue guidelines, department-specific posters that define what is and what is not appropriate for food bank donation are placed throughout the store as a quick reference guide for employees.

The biggest hurdle in designing the guidelines was defining what can and cannot be donated based on code date, said Kacer. Sprouts allows donations two days past the code date, but also defines food conditions that might prevent donation. For example, a misshapen bell pepper can be donated, but a split melon cannot, he added. “We also do not donate baby food or raw product.”

Every Sprouts location – more than 250 stores – participates in the Food Rescue Program, said Kacer. There is a Sprouts Green Leader – usually an assistant store manager – responsible for sustainability programs, who oversees implementation of the food donation programs as well as other recycling programs. “We also have additional oversight with our field compliance officers whose audits include checking for food bank donation areas in each department along with proper procedures to identify food donations,” he said.

“Each store is required to designate a space in each department for food donations, and food bank partners must pick up donations five days of the week,” said Kacer. The frequency of the food bank pickups ensures the food is delivered within the code date guidelines and minimizes the amount of space needed for donated food in the store’s storage areas.

Since formalization of the Food Rescue program in 2013, more than 43 million pounds of food have been donated to food banks serving Sprouts stores’ communities.

Food waste that does not meet safe guidelines for donation to food banks goes to the Food Waste to Farms Program, which delivers the food to cattle or dairy farms for use in feedlots or composting. “Most of our stores participate in this program; in fact, we have fewer than 10 stores that are unable to participate due to site challenges,” said Kacer. Not enough space for the collection bins or landlord restrictions prevent participation by these locations, he explained.

In addition to the environmental benefits of diverting waste from landfills, Kacer pointed out the financial benefits to a business. “Two years ago trash service was scheduled one time each week for stores, now pickups occur every 10 to 14 days – with some stores scheduling service every 21 days,” he said. Not only are costs reduced by less frequency of service, but the company is no longer paying the same level of tonnage fees, he added.

When beginning a waste diversion program, it is helpful to conduct a waste audit, recommended Kacer. “If possible, examine what goes into a compactor to see what is being discarded.” Documenting the amount of food as well as recyclable materials such as cardboard and plastic not only supports development of a food waste diversion or recycling program, but also provides a benchmark to measure success of the programs implemented.

Establishing an internal team to develop a food waste diversion program is also important, said Kacer. Including a variety of departments, such as purchasing as well as operations, creates a program that can be supported by everyone.

“I also recommend retailers use Feeding America as a resource,” advised Kacer. The not-for-profit organization provides information for retailers with questions about food donations and has a network of food banks across the country that can accept donations.

Another helpful resource is any other retail organization with a food waste diversion program, pointed out Kacer. “We share our guidelines with other organizations. These are programs that are good for the environment and for our communities. We are happy to share the lessons we’ve learned.”

Justin Kacer

The combination of the two programs, along with other recycling initiatives has eliminated 50 percent of the grocer’s waste that goes to landfills.

By: Sheryl S. Jackson

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