Reducing food waste to feed hungry Alaskans

Every year, 133 billion lbs. of food end up in landfills in the United States. That’s 31 percent of the country’s food supply. To curb that, today the federal government announced it’s first-ever food waste reduction goals. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced they aim to reduce waste by 50 percent by 2030. But some stores in Alaska are already doing what they can to reduce their waste, and feed hungry Alaskans.

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Stephen Longnecker stands beside the reduced price produce stand in Fred Meyer in Anchorage. (Hillman/KSKA)
Stephen Longnecker stands beside the reduced price produce stand in Fred Meyer in Anchorage. (Hillman/KSKA)

Fred Meyer Store Director Stephen Longnecker strides through the store, greeting everyone he sees.

“Hector, how are you?” he says, smiling at an employee. “What’s the count down to vacation?”

He knows the names of all 289 of his coworkers. He also knows what’s going to sell in his grocery store and what’s not.

“In our business, Back to School season, overnight, with the flip of a switch you may go from selling one unit of pint-sized milk to a hundred units in a day.”

Longnecker steps into the massive dairy refrigerator and slips into back office business speak. They have sales histories, metrics and data that help him order the right amount of each product for each season. But the calculations aren’t perfect. Sometimes cranberry sauce just isn’t popular that year, or they have a couple of random items that just won’t be bought before they expire. And sometimes a pallet full of bananas is still good enough to eat but not pretty enough to sell.

“That banana’s traveled a long way by the time it gets to Alaska, and at times you will find you have some product that we’re not going to be able to sell our way out of,” Longnecker says.

So instead, it’s donated to the Food Bank. Last year, Anchorage Fred Meyer stores donated 283,000 pounds. Longnecker says they started donating the perishable food instead of throwing it away about five years ago. Since then, Kroger, the company that owns Fred Meyer, has reduced their costs for disposing of waste by 70% nationwide.

The produce display at Fred Meyer on Abbot in Anchorage. What doesn't sell will be donated. (Hillman/KSKA)
The produce display at Fred Meyer on Abbot in Anchorage. What doesn’t sell will be donated. (Hillman/KSKA)

“And that’s pretty revolutionary for all of us because it cut the costs of expenses in a big way, and it also really benefits our communities.”

In 2014, Alaska’s food industry donated nearly 4.9 million pounds of food to the Food Bank. Twenty-seven percent of that was produce. That’s a big change from nine years ago when the Food Bank couldn’t offer individual families much in the way of fresh fruits and veggies. Food Bank Development Director Karla Jutzi says that’s what people want to buy to stay healthy, but they can’t afford it.

“People in need tell us they know they are buying high calorie, highly processed food that’s not very good for them, but they can more of that for their dollar than they can get healthy fresh food,” she explains. “So that’s why having fresh produce and other fresh food available from our food industry partners makes a huge difference for folks who can’t afford it themselves.”

Jutzi says even community gardeners are bringing in fresh produce. It’s distributed through the mobile food pantries. Jutzi says they do receive some donations that are too far gone to give to people, so they try to give as much as possible to local pig farmers.

Other stores donate directly to food pantries, like St. Francis House, giving about 25 grocery carts full of food and bread every week.

Back at Fred Meyer, Longnecker says they do have to throw away some unsafe foods. A composting system is still a few years away.

Heading past the towering shelves of goods in the storage area and back into the main store, Longnecker presents me with a disposable white hairnet and we proceed into the meat department.

Food manager and former butcher Anthony Gurule slices into a stack of short ribs, the massive saw screeching like an angry bird.

The meat display at Fred Meyer in southeast Anchorage. What doesn't sell will be donated. (Hillman/KSKA)
The meat display at Fred Meyer in southeast Anchorage. What doesn’t sell will be donated. (Hillman/KSKA)

He starts trimming the sides of the meat. Bits of red flesh are tossed into a pile to be ground into burgers. The rubbery white fat is set aside in a box. In the Lower 48, it’s sold to companies that render it into makeup and other goods. In Anchorage, “we will sell all of this right here to a lot of hunters in hunting season,” Gurule explains. Hunters add it to ground moose and caribou to help make sausage and burgers.

“We do our best to be as streamlined as best we can and keep as minimal waste as possible. Somebody will buy something. They’ll all buy something.”

With that, he lines up the ribs on a white Styrofoam tray, ready to pack them up and put them on the sales floor. If they don’t sell, they’ll be frozen and put aside to be donated to the Food Bank.