According to ReFED, 38% of all food in the United States goes unsold or uneaten. Not only does this waste represent a missed opportunity to feed those in need, but it also has severe environmental repercussions. Food waste is responsible for nearly 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it a significant contributor to climate change.
Earlier this month, the Climate Collaborative had the chance to sit down with Organically Grown Company (OGC) to learn more about how they are addressing food waste as a distributor. OGC is the largest wholesaler of organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs in the Pacific Northwest. Not only are they committed to organic produce, but they are also committed to continually holding themselves accountable to operating in service of a healthier planet. In their words, they are “A vital link in the supply chain dedicated to the safe handling and transport of the produce in our care, being good stewards of our planet and the people in our community.”
Could you tell us about your climate and/or sustainability goals? How do you ensure that food waste reduction efforts align with OGC’s overall climate goals?
Every decision we make is full of respect for the people we work with and the planet we call home. Our teams don't just comply with environmental regulations – we work together every day to reduce our environmental impact, coming up with creative solutions to slash energy consumption, cut down on plastics and divert as much waste as possible from hitting the landfill. Reducing, diverting, recycling, and gleaning practices are part of our DNA.
We recently teamed up with graduate students at the University of Oregon and Portland State University to help understand our emission impacts. They built tools for tracking our greenhouse gas emissions and waste stream, designed a three-year plan to help us address plastic packaging, and inspired change. We also brought back our in-house Sustainability Committee and hired a Sustainability Manager, creating eco-advocates throughout the company to support this work. While we haven’t specifically tied our food waste reduction goals to our climate goals, we are including them in our improvement strategy.
What measures does OGC have in place to reduce food waste?
OGC buyers source from more than 345 organic vendors representing 1,000 farmers worldwide, so our produce is available at its peak from where it grows best. Ninety-nine percent of our inventory is in our possession for less than six days, thanks to the demand for organic in our region, and our hard-working team that works around the clock to get delicious fresh produce to tables, 365 days a year.
OGC has daily practices in place to help minimize food waste. Our quality assurance (QA) team has a special app to monitor produce inventory daily, and shelf-life reports monitor where things are in terms of age. We check and remove any product that’s past its prime and repack the high quality items so the compromised items don’t cause the whole case to be lost. We also monitor dated expirations, since OGC honors a five-day guarantee on dated products once delivered to our customers.
We have animal feed bins staged throughout the warehouse and a daily process of going through returned products to sort into donations and animal feed. We have also partnered with multiple organizations that are ready and able to take lower quality produce, which means that even if produce comes in at a lower quality than we would send to our general customers, we have somewhere to send this to, so it remains in the food chain and out of landfills.
What happens if a product doesn’t meet that day threshold?
If we can’t move a product by its threshold date or an item doesn’t match the size/shape/color specifications required by a customer, OGC’s Sales Representatives, Quality Assurance Team and Buyers work to find alternative outlets. This could be a grocer focused on offering discounted goods, or a company that needs organic produce to make a product like juice and salsa. We get creative to reclaim a few dollars and minimize food waste.
Do you always find a buyer?
Not always. If we can’t find a buyer in a day or two, we donate the edible items to one of our gleaners/food donation partners. If items are no longer edible for humans, it feeds animals (except for food recalls, contaminated items that are required to be landfilled, and avocados because they’re toxic to pigs). This process keeps our food “shrink” less than 1% consistently. That 1% is split into food donations and animal feed, so very little gets wasted.
What is the role of collaborations or partnerships to reduce wasted food?
We have partnerships with several alternative buyers that we sell to, and with organizations like Imperfect Produce. Some of our like-minded customers work with us to find options for produce that doesn’t meet traditional specifications for a produce display for use in value-added items like a deli salad.
Our gleaning partners take the majority of our less-than perfect, edible produce, and we have a wide variety of nonprofit organizations ready to distribute our donations.
What specific strategies or initiatives has your company implemented to minimize food waste throughout the supply chain?
- Our logistics team and drivers know how to quickly and carefully transport fresh, perishable produce from the farm to our main Portland facility.
- OGC has a full-time time “re-pack” dedicated to sorting through any product that has quality issues to keep as much as possible in the food chain.
- Produce with quality or cosmetic issues but still edible is donated to coworkers, gleaning partners, or other charitable organizations.
- We work with our grower partners to plan crops, commit to buying a whole harvest to reduce on-farm waste
- We work with customers to increase the types of food they will accept by amending size/shape/color specifications or finding other uses for products such as value-added applications inside store delis.
Does OGC have a system in place to track and monitor food waste levels? If so, how do you utilize this data to drive improvements?
We have some systems in place that help us track the amount of food waste. When a case of produce is sorted, we track how much is being dumped as “shrink” and how much is being returned to inventory. When we donate pallets to food banks and gleaners, we record how many pounds are donated. While this doesn’t give a perfect metric of how much food we are keeping out of landfills, it does give us a ballpark figure. We also have weekly meetings, which go into more detail about how much and what produce is pulled from inventory as “shrink.” These numbers, together, give us a relative idea of how much food waste we are diverting from landfills and getting back into the agricultural supply chain.
In what ways do you involve employees in efforts to reduce food waste and promote sustainable practices?
OGC’s Quality Assurance and Repack teams work to ensure as little produce as possible goes to waste through sales, sorting and donations. Each supervisor has developed standard operating procedures and trained coworkers to follow set practices.
Has your company implemented any innovative technologies or solutions to prevent or repurpose food waste?
We partner with a local farm to pick up our produce waste for free. We have two trailers, and they pick them up on a rotation. It’s a win-win partnership: the farmer gets free organic animal feed, and we know our produce is getting the best possible use at its end of life at no cost to us. See also above for information on how we partner with alternative buyers and regular customers to reduce waste.
How does your company collaborate with suppliers and farmers to optimize the use of ingredients and minimize waste?
We have nonprofit gleaning partners, we make in-kind produce donations and find alternative markets for off-spec produce or product nearing it’s expiration date.
What are the goals or targets OGC has set to reduce food waste, and how are you progressing towards those goals?
We have a goal to keep our “shrink” at or below 1%. We have consistently met this goal. Shrink includes produce donations, animal feed and food that is truly “wasted” by going to the landfill (only avocados or contaminated/recalled foods). At OGC, the percentage of food that’s truly wasted is very small. We have a goal of improving our data tracking and hope to have better insight by the end of the year.