Former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch was on NPR this weekend talking about his project to launch a market/eatery in a low-income neighborhood outside Boston that will sell expired food—a story that ironically aired just two days after House Republicans managed to muscle through massive cuts to the nation’s food stamp program.
There’s something eminently exciting about Rauch’s plan, in an early-21st-century, synergetic, conscientious capitalistic, TED Talk kinda way. If you haven’t already heard about it, the idea boils down to something like this: America wastes a staggering amount of food (40 percent is the current go-to stat, or $165 billion per year, enough to feed 25 million Americans). A good portion of that waste comes from epidemic-level confusion over so-called “expiration dates,” according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic (also, as it turns out, released last week). Basically, a lot of perfectly good food gets pitched into the trash just because of a little date printed on the side of the package—a date that turns out to be pretty meaningless.
Enter Rauch, who wants to take that food and pass the savings advantage on to low-income communities where access to healthy food options is dismal. Yes, customers will be able to buy things like produce and milk, but also healthy prepared foods like sandwiches and wraps made from “day-old” products priced to compete with places like McDonald’s and KFC.
Earlier this year, Rauch compared the concept to the Goodwill, which takes donated clothing and other items and then sells that stuff at rock-bottom prices. According to NPR, Rauch intends to have his first location open early next year, in Dorchester, MA, and it seems the name of the concept has evolved from Urban Food Initiative—which, admittedly, did sound unappetizingly wonky—to the Daily Table. Which is much more “on-trend,” right? It’s got that artisanal, farm-to-table vibe going on.
This is a man who managed to enter the overcrowded, penny-pinching supermarket biz and, through ingenious product selection, branding and an overall quirky sensibility, helped create what has been ranked as the most beloved grocery store in the country. If he can do something similar when it comes to serving those who often have to rely on food pantries—great! But that success can only go so far.
Because as exciting as such headline-grabbing private initiatives are, it’s become all too easy to overlook the critical importance of public assistance—and how it dwarfs even the most far-reaching non-governmental efforts. Now, Rauch’s project isn’t even off the ground yet, of course. But in response to Republican efforts to slash $40 billion from the nation’s food stamp program over the next decade, the country’s largest hunger-relief charity, Feeding America, which has a network of more than 200 food banks, said bluntly: “Charity absolutely cannot make up for this substantial cut to federal food assistance. Millions of our most vulnerable neighbors will be at increased risk of hunger if these cuts become a reality.”
I’m visiting New York this week, where I lived for a decade before moving away six years ago. Yesterday, I decided to give the city’s new Citibike bike share program a spin. It was thrilling; I kept marveling at how brilliant the whole idea was even as it seemed a bus full of tourists was going to crack my head open like a cantaloupe any second. My point? The bikes are great, but there’s no way they’re going to replace the behemoth, multimillion-dollar, publicly financed subway system—and no one expects them to.
That’s not much different from the fact that private food-assistance programs, as innovative as they may be, can’t make up for the 3.4 billion meals that Feeding America says will be lost if the food stamp cuts survive.