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Grocery produce

If you’re not too concerned about “gently expired” or slightly damaged packages of food, you can save a lot by shopping at “scratch and dent” stores. But is it right to peddle such products to those who may have no other options?

Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, is working to open a nonprofit store in Boston that caters to low-income residents – with past-its-sell-by-date food. His Urban Food Initiative would take products that supermarkets would otherwise discard, and offer them at deep discounts to those who can’t afford everyday supermarket prices. If the idea works, he plans to expand it nationwide.

Rauch is raising money from donors, and using a lot of his own, to launch the initiative. But would all that money be better served by, say, buying unexpired food and donating it?

Jose Alvarez, a former Stop & Shop president who is now on the Urban Food Initiative board, understands that the idea may appear unseemly at first. They don’t want low-income customers to think “Hey, I’m going to be eating the rich man’s garbage,” he tells the Boston Globe. What he wants people to think instead is, “you could have bought this yesterday at Whole Foods or Stop & Shop for $2, and today you can get it at Doug’s store for a dollar, or 50 cents, and it’s perfectly fine.”

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That’s what fans of so-called scratch-and-dent stores have long believed. Once relegated to the fringes, such stores have gone mainstream recently, with growing chains like Grocery Outlet Bargain Market. To those who believe many expiration dates are just a suggestion, and damaged packages have no effect on the product inside, stores like the Grocery Outlet can be a bargain-hunter’s dream. In fact, at one store in Spokane, Washington, a whole shipment of products from the defunct company Hostess recently showed up. The store acquired them from a source that froze them, after the company went bankrupt late last year. “We’ve got some real treasures here if you look,” the manager told Spokane’s KXLY.

So maybe Twinkies never really expire, no matter what’s printed on the outside of the box. But fresh food does – as shoppers at “Rodney’s Discount Foods Clearance, Scratch and Dents” in Virginia recently found out. The owner was arrested last year for allegedly reselling meat and dairy products that he fished out of other grocery store’s dumpsters (read: “Scratches, Dents – Oh, And Putrid Dumpster Meat, Too”).

Rauch insists nothing like that would happen at his store. He says tossing food, just because it reaches a sometimes arbitrary sell-by date, is a huge waste. Supermarkets, he says, throw out an estimated $47 billion worth of food each year. Reclaiming just a portion of that would not only help eliminate food waste, but help make nutritious food more affordable to those who need it most. Milk priced at a dollar a gallon, for example, would make it less expensive than soda. Salads and sandwiches created from products destined for the dumpster, would be less expensive than a fast food burger and fries. He likens his effort to Goodwill, which resells donated but still usable clothes.

In a recent report on food waste, the Natural Resources Defense Council notes that many stores pull items off their shelves two to three days before their sell-by dates, which it points out are really just “manufacturer suggestions for peak quality.” Most foods, it says, are safe to eat well past their printed use-by dates. Alvarez says stores stock more products than they can possibly sell, particularly produce, to keep their displays looking bountiful and fresh. And were it not for initiatives like Rauch’s, all that produce would serve as mere “props” that would otherwise go to waste.

Rauch knows his idea is a tough sell, though. At Trader Joe’s, he aimed to keep prices low by selling a limited assortment of store-brand – and unexpired – products. His new venture is a whole different kind of business model. “We don’t want it,” one neighbor of his proposed store told the Boston Globe. “Why would we?” But others were more open to the idea. “If it’s surplus and it’s usable,” another neighborhood resident said, “I’d rather have it in the hands of people who can use it than see it go in the trash.”

2 Comments

  1. Sound like the produce they sell @ my local Walmart. Even when it’s a bagged item it has a shorter than normal code. Well, shorter than I would normally find @ Kroger, for instance.
    I always thought that the reason the produce was cheaper (& of apparant inferior quality) was because it was rejected buy the produce buyers @ the other grocers. Am I wrong about that? (No, I am not being sarcastic.)

    Anyway, “produce as props” is harsh.
    In retail, an attractive display is paramount. Whether it be a mannequin @ Macys or a scone disply @ Starbucks. Attractiveness matters. It’s called: Advertising and IT WORKS.
    Furthermore, we (Americans) waste far too much food and if it can be sold and consumed safely-do it. I have shopped @ day-old-bread stores and I feel no shame in that.
    Market ‘seconds’ in produce? A concept long overdue…I hope they accept foods stamps and state nutrition assistance programs. Better yet, sell it in ‘underserved’ neighborhoods where it can do the most good.

    • Out of date food is one thing – but to take it from a dumpster, put it in a hot car in the summer and drive it around all day and then take dumpster food and re-freeze it and re-sell it is completely different. This is so dangerous. I wonder how many people have been sick and have had no idea that maybe it was caused by that dumpster food. The government needs to stop the selling of dumpster food. One way would ask the store owner for receipts from the store where he bought his food for re-sale. As far as I know, dumpsters do not give out “receipts”. I also understand that many large grocery chains do not just give out out-dated food for resale but give it to charities like food kitchens. If a store sells any food that has been in a dumpster, it should be marked “This item has been in an outside dumpster”.

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