Thursday, January 17, 2019

Food for Thought

Did you know that we throw out 40% of the food we produce?  And 25% of the food produced is thrown out by households. Suddenly, though, this waste is starting to get noticed.

The first thing that happened was that Trader Joe’s ex-president started a non-profit that sells surplus and unsold food at very low prices. 99 cents for a dozen eggs. 29 cents for a pound of bananas. There’s only one store so far, and it’s in Boston, but the model may pick up steam.

The second thing that happened was a law enacted in France that requires supermarkets to compost or donate unsold food. Food banks are happy, because this promises to increase donations. “Another law, which went into effect on New Year’s Day, aims to target food waste in restaurants. Large French restaurants are required to offer customers  “doggie bags,” or takeaway containers, should they request them.”

These developments can be summarized as follows: “Sell or donate food.  Don’t throw it away!”

I had a long argument with a libertarian friend about all this.  He was all in favor of the idea of setting up a business to sell surplus food.  However, he was totally against the idea of forcing businesses to donate food (rather than throw it away) if they couldn’t sell it.  I, on the other hand, couldn’t see why businesses shouldn’t be required to do the right thing.  If they cannot sell something, even at cut rate prices, why shouldn’t they give it away rather than deprive someone of each it?  I also pointed out that the business set up by Trader Joe’s ex-president was a non-profit, so it really isn’t a typical entrepreneur business.  The business really runs on donations.  The food is sold in order to cover the cost of distribution.

Waste is a pretty bad thing – particularly in these days when we are all noticing that the price of food is increasing.  And forcing a business to give something to a food bank when they cannot sell it doesn’t seem like such a hardship.  Of course, if the food is given away, that reduces the number of customers, and the reduction of customers may tend to cut prices overall.  Still, the customers are those who really cannot afford the supermarket prices in the first place. If the supermarkets don’t want to give food away, they can be more careful about over-ordering food.  That in itself should help keep the price of food lower.

So both the Trader Joe’s ex-president’s idea and the French law seem to make sense.  The next question is whether the U.S. will buy into either or both.  We pride ourselves on being charitable.  Let’s see if it’s really true.

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