Every week, some meat in Giant supermarkets goes unsold. In years past, it was thrown away, but it won't go to waste anymore.
Now refrigerated trucks from the Maryland Food Bank stop several times a week at Giant stores, where workers load them with frozen steak, hamburger, chicken and pork to be delivered to food pantries throughout the state.
Giant's "Meat the Needs" initiative, which offers high-protein foods to the needy while diverting food waste from landfills, has grown from four stores in the state to 52, and last year donated 400,000 pounds of meat, or 20 million servings.
The Landover-based unit of Ahold USA is among a growing number of grocers, restaurants and food makers looking for new ways to tackle the huge amount of waste in the food industry. As much as 40 percent of the food produced in the United States ends up in landfills, where food ranks as the biggest category of waste, according to the Food Waste Reduction Alliance. The groups says waste is generated all along the supply chain, from farms and manufacturers to retailers, restaurants and consumers at home.
In 2010, nearly 40 million tons of food ended up in landfills.
The alliance, which includes manufacturers, food retailers and restaurants, took on the issue in 2012, hoping to reduce food waste, increase the amount of food being donated and recycle more of the unavoidable food waste — such as plate scraps at restaurants and trim from food preparation.
"The scope of the problem is huge," said Meghan Stasz, senior director of sustainability for the Grocery Manufacturers Association and a co-leader of the alliance. "We recognized a real area of opportunity to improve business efficiency, do better for the environment and better serve the one in six Americans struggling with hunger."
At Whole Foods' Baltimore-area stores, employees sort unsold food into bins labeled compostable, recyclable and landfill every day, said Katie Davison, metro marketing team leader for the Baltimore region, which includes stores in Harbor East, Mount Washington and Columbia. And groups such as The Samaritan Community, St. Francis neighborhood center and Our Daily Bread stop at the stores several times a week to pick up food that otherwise would go to the landfill.
"That's a commitment we have on an every-day basis to be more sustainable," Davison said.
The food waste alliance supports the Obama administration's goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030, but says its been difficult to measure progress. The alliance is conducting surveys to get a handle on the issue.
"Data on food waste is really difficult to come by," Stasz said.
The alliance serves as a clearinghouse for best practices in reducing waste.
"The No. 1 success we've had is raising awareness throughout the industry, in terms of how beneficial reducing food waste can be to business, the environment and society, and just raising awareness of food waste in general," Stasz said.
For example, she said, ConAgra Foods was able to reduce wasted dough in its Marie Callender pot pies by 260 tons a year simply by altering the way dough is placed in the pies. At Wegmans, employees have found uses for fresh but misshapen carrots that would otherwise go to waste, using them in salads and soup.
The Meat the Need program has been expanding into all divisions of Ahold USA, coming to Giant in 2013. Employees pull meat that hasn't sold but falls within the dates of an internal "freshness code," and freezes it for donation instead of diverting it to landfills or rendering facilities.
"Food banks have come to us over the last several years and have mentioned that protein like beef and pork and poultry are part of their greatest needs," said Terry McGowan, director of food safety and quality assurance for Giant, which has stores in Virginia, Delaware and Washington. "They get nonperishable and bakery products, but the greatest demand is for protein."
McGowan said the goal is to donate as much as possible before diverting food to recycling or composting. Using those guidelines, Giant has been able to increase its percentage of waste diverted from landfills from 84 percent in 2014 to 88 percent last year. Donating meat helped, he said.
Giant donated 1.1 million pounds of meat across its three-state region and Washington last year.
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"It's been an evolution and a growing area that each year we're trying to get better at these programs," McGowan said.
In an even newer program, Ahold is testing a process in a Massachusetts distribution center known as an aerobic digester, which converts wasted food and packaging into energy that powers a portion of the distribution center.
The Maryland Food Bank has been trying to find ways to add healthier and more nutritious food, and the meat fits the bill, said CEO Beth Martino. Food bank officials have seen an increase over the past few years in food retailers' donations, she said.
"We're distributing things beyond canned and dried food," Martino said. "We want to give people the food they need to make a healthy and nutritious meal, and that needs to come from more than canned and dried goods. ... Protein is something typically very expensive for people to get. A program like this makes steak, chicken, pork, meat that people need, that's a critical component of a well-balanced diet, available to people struggling to put food on the table."
The meat is picked up either directly by the food bank or by partner agencies that run local food pantries, which typically operate out of churches, schools and community centers. She said about 750,000 people in Maryland are "food insecure," meaning at some point in the year they will not know the source of their next meal.
"We're able to extend the shelf life of the product by freezing it," Martino said. "We move that meat very, very quickly. ... It's high-quality, good meat. … People are always asking when we're going to have more meat on the menu."