Photos provided by Whole Foods Market Inc.

Since the company’s inception on Sept. 20, 1980, Whole Foods Market Inc. has grown to become a multinational supermarket chain, including more than 500 stores across the United States. With a focus on selling products free from hydrogenated fats and artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, the Austin-based grocery market is most known for its organics selections.

Expanding rapidly in the last decade, the company has boasted rising net sales, bringing in over $16 billion in 2017, the same year Amazon purchased Whole Foods. However, this increasing demand has brought about a key issue needed to be addressed—food waste.

“Since we opened our first store in 1980, we’ve not only been passionate about healthy food, but we’ve also been passionate about a healthy planet and nourishing our communities, which is why we invest in food waste and food redistribution programs,” says Jen Monaco, executive leader of operations for Whole Foods. “Our stores sell and make … fresh food and it’s important to our team members that edible food waste can be donated, thus providing meals for those who may need it in their community.”

Currently, the company follows a strong food waste strategy to prevent and divert food from entering landfill, mirroring what is proposed in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Food Recovery Hierarchy. According to Whole Foods, each store’s team members are thoroughly trained on food waste efficiency, from smart ordering to food donation best practices.

“Team members record all items sampled, donated or spoiled. Our [staff] reviews reports and data to see what has been purchased, sold and spoiled to adjust their purchasing decisions accordingly,” the company says.

RESCUING FOOD WASTE

For food waste that cannot be dealt with at the source, Whole Foods has implemented food donation stations for stores in its Northern California region, which offer daily food rescue pickups.

These designated areas feature job aids, department guidelines, trainings and signage to help guide the store on setting up and maintaining the food donation stations. This helps keep the donation areas clean, organized and efficient for team members and food rescue agencies, according to the company.

“When Whole Foods Market stores have food to be donated, our team members take great care to maintain quality and assure the food is safe to consume. After the team member has recorded the item, they properly package it and place it in a storage bin for collection,” says Susan Livingston, Whole Foods’ global marketing director and community engagement lead.

The Amazon-owned grocery retailer has also partnered with the national organization Food Donation Connection, which assists food service companies with the development and implementation of “Harvest Programs” designed to provide an alternative to discarding surplus food.

Having coordinated the donation of over 750 million pounds of prepared food from food service providers in 31 countries, Food Donation Connection administers these programs by linking donor locations with food rescue groups or direct service organizations, assisting in the development of product quality and handling standards, tax valuation, donation reporting and ongoing monitoring and follow-up to ensure program implementation and growth.

“Food Donation Connection has been a wonderful partner,” says Livingston. “Our stores can contact them directly for support in enhancing their food donation program. We work closely with them on reporting to identify areas where we can improve and increase the percentage of food going towards donations.”

The company also launched Nourishing Our Neighborhoods on Sept. 1, 2020 to kick off Hunger Action Month. The program was created to support food insecurity by expanding capacity and capability for community-based food rescue organizations to move food from where it’s available to where it’s needed most.

Whole Foods Market donated the funds to purchase 19 refrigerated vans, and upcycled two refrigerated catering vans, to community-based food rescue and redistribution programs to transport both perishable and nonperishable food to communities within 18 markets across the U.S. and Canada. The vans provide recipient organizations with 20,000 pounds of rescued food per week per vehicle, donated from Whole Foods Market and surrounding grocers and retailers, which equates to 182 million meals provided over the anticipated 10-year lifetime use of each van.

"Since we opened our first store in 1980, we’ve not only been passionate about healthy food, but we’ve also been passionate about a healthy planet and nourishing our communities, which is why we invest in food waste and food redistribution programs,” –Jen Monaco, executive leader of operations, Whole Foods

“One challenge that Nourishing Our Neighborhoods is aimed at addressing is that, as outlined in ReFED’s COVID-19 U.S. Food System Review, while food systems are global by nature, they manifest locally, especially in the last mile of distribution to consumers,” says Monaco. “So, hyper-local support is needed to ensure distribution to end users, in many cases through community-based organizations like the recipients of Whole Foods Market’s Nourishing Our Neighborhoods program.”

The company says it aims to rescue perishable and nonperishable food, and because Whole Foods team members are highly trained on food safety, most stores are able to rescue meat, seafood, sushi, and in non-COVID times, prepared foods. Donated products are also helpful to organizations serving those with medically tailored diets, Monaco adds.

Over the past five years, Whole Foods has donated an average of approximately 26 million meals annually. In 2020 alone, Whole Foods Market donated over 27 million meals to food rescue and redistribution programs.

COMPLETING THE CYCLE

Aside from food donation and redistribution, many of Whole Foods’ stores also participate in food waste diversion and recycling programs such as composting, anaerobic digestion (AD) to create renewable energy and animal feed programs.

For example, dairy farmers in Massachusetts use this food waste as feedstock for on-site AD treatment plants. According to the company, this process begins by gathering food waste from around the state, including from many Whole Foods locations. One such location is the company’s store in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, where Whole Foods has installed a Grind2Energy system. The industrial-strength food waste recycling system, which was provided by St. Louis-based Emerson, grinds up all the food scraps the store can’t sell, including bones, fish, dry items and fats and greases. This material can then be codigested along with manure and other material at dairy farms implementing AD.

While Whole Foods donates a lot of surplus food to food banks, the company says there is still a lot of waste left over. According to a 2019 NPR article, much of this food waste is generated from prepping prepared foods.

“Just as when you cook in your own kitchen, there are lots of bits that remain, such as onion or carrot peels, rinds, stalks or meat scraps. The grinder turns all these bits into a slurry,” the article reports. The slurry is then loaded onto a truck and fed into anaerobic digesters, built and operated by Vanguard Renewables, which capture the methane emissions and make renewable energy for area dairy farms.

To date, Emerson has installed Grind2Energy systems at 10 locations in the North Atlantic region. These systems allow Whole Foods to convert food that would otherwise go to waste into nutrient-rich fertilizers, eliminate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions equivalent to millions of automobile miles and convert natural gas into heat for hundreds of area homes.

“Whole Foods Market works to minimize waste across our operations, and Grind2Energy helps us ensure unavoidable food waste is converted into a renewable energy source,” said Karen Franczyk, the previous green mission coordinator for Whole Foods Market’s North Atlantic region, in a release. “Emerson has proven to be a strong and energetic partner, passionate about innovation that is truly helping Whole Foods Market advance our environmental stewardship.”

The author is the assistant editor of Waste Today and can be reached at hrischar@gie.net.