Should We Be Eating More ‘Expired’ Foods? A Former Trader Joe’s Exec. Thinks So

Would a store that sells foods past their sell-by date help address food insecurity and waste?

Millions of pounds of uneaten food gets thrown away each year in America. A new food shop in Boston plans to use edible but unsellable foods to make meals in a low-income community. (Photo: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)
Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

You know that “sell-by” date on your carton of milk or eggs? Removed—at least at one store about to open in Boston. Former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch announced that he is behind the new effort, which will set up shop in a low-income section of the city to sell low-cost food and meals made predominately from still-edible ingredients that have passed their sell-by dates.

It’s a solution, Rauch says, to two major problems plaguing our nation: food waste and food insecurity stemming from a lack of proper nutrition in many low-income neighborhoods.

“The number one leading problem is affordable nutrition,” Rauch told The Boston Globe. “For the 50 million Americans who are food insecure, their solution is not a full stomach. It’s a healthy meal.”

He’s right, of course: one in six Americans, including one in four children, do not know where their next meal is coming from. But while many Americans remain hungry, an unacceptable amount of our food—almost half—gets thrown out. According to data from the USDA and Economic Research Service, U.S. food retailers discarded more than $166 billion worth of food in 2008 because it had “expired.”

Rauch sees solutions to these two issues converging in the nonprofit food store. Customers will be able to purchase “expired” ingredients like milk for a fraction of their retail price, as well as healthy meals made from donated food. He says the shop—which will be located at a community health center in Dorchester, a low-income neighborhood widely considered a “food desert”—will serve as a pilot for his Urban Food Initiative, and he hopes the model will spread to other cities.

But the idea is not without its critics. For one, there seems to be an initial “ew factor” to overcome for some residents, who dislike the idea of eating someone else’s “leftovers”—a situtaion that may appear even less palatable when it seems like a low-income area is getting everyone else’s castoffs. 

“We don’t want it,” hairstylist Kiki Carter told The Globe. “Why would we?”

Some also think the discount food shop, which will receive donations from supermarkets and other retailers, may compete for resources with area food banks. Staff at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts say that the presence of several stores in the area that sell “expired” food—like The Barn Grocery in Greenfield and various dollar stores—affects its corporate food donations.

“The donation pool that we’re soliciting from is the same pool that they’re soliciting from, and many times [discount food shops] actually purchase the food,” Gibbons, communications and marketing manager at the food bank, tells TakePart. “It’s a changing aspect of the food banking industry that we’ll need to address.”

At the same time, Gibbons is quick to add that while it might complicate the food bank’s procurement strategy, The Barn Grocery has shown itself to be successful in providing healthy, affordable food to low-income people.

Jonathan Bloom, a journalist who focuses on food waste, says that while he understands community concerns about being sold “unwanted food” and the issue of competing with food banks, he still supports the Urban Food Initiative and says it’s a positive step forward in addressing both waste and hunger.

“We’re talking about good, nutritious food victimized by the inanity of expiration dates, in particular ‘sell-by’ dates,” says Bloom, creator of WastedFood.com and author of American Wasteland. “I would feed that food to my family.”

What do you think of Doug Rauchs idea?

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