Selling consumers on “ugly” food

Trader Joe’s ex-president Doug Rauch hopes his newest venture can help change consumer attitudes about buying imperfect and “expired” foods.

You can see it every day in any supermarket produce department: Shoppers poking, prodding and picking through piles of fresh fruits and vegetables, seeking perfectly shaped produce for their carts.

But the passion for cosmetically compelling food is one of the reasons nearly 40 percent of food produced in the United States is never eaten, and experts project that amount will continue to increase as the U.S. population grows. To help stem the tide of this massive food waste, former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch is betting he can profit from rescuing dumpster-destined produce and foods past their expiration dates and selling them to consumers at discounted prices.

How ingenuity will feed the world.
Doug Rauch

Rauch’s new venture, called Daily Table, is expected to open in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston by September 2014. Rauch and his team will partner with local supermarkets, farms and large foodservice operators including hospitals and hotels; Daily Table will do the gleaning and the preparation and then sell the food to Dorchester residents at a greatly reduced price. Milk, bread, eggs, produce and other “as is” items will account for about 40 percent of sales, says Rauch, in addition to the store’s ready-to-eat fare. The goal: Offer healthy, nutritious food for the same price a family might spend on fast food or less-healthy convenience foods.

Daily Table came out of the years of watching perfectly good food throughout the food chain go to waste.”
— Doug Rauch

The idea isn’t without controversy. Critics say Rauch is trying to pawn off less than desirable food to some of Boston’s neediest families, but Rauch points to figures that show more than 17 million Americans were food insecure at some point in 2012—meaning they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.

“Calories are cheap. Nutrition is expensive. I’d like one in six Americans to eat what they should be eating. I want the problem to be solved. Daily Table has a potentially innovative and different approach,” says Rauch. And if it works, it’s an idea that is scalable, he adds.

Waste not, want not

Rauch says he developed the idea for Daily Table while participating in a recent Harvard University fellowship program, but the concept was a natural extension of his long tenure in the food industry.

“Frankly, Daily Table came out of the years of watching perfectly good food throughout the food chain go to waste,” he says. “It is an astonishing amount of food. At the same time, here I was receiving almost weekly mailings from Feeding America about ‘1 in 6 Americans are hungry!’ How could this be?

“… We have all this great food which is being discarded not for food safety reasons, but because it was either unsold inventory or cosmetically blemished,” he adds. “This food was not being tossed because manufacturers or grocers didn’t care, but because it was difficult to get it recovered. Also, many companies mistakenly worry about liability issues [that were resolved with the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.].”

Rauch says he’s searching for a better term to describe still-edible food that’s gone beyond the date stamped on the package. He toys with the idea of calling it “excess inventory,” like clothing at T.J. Maxx. But he knows what it won’t be called—“expired.”

“[‘Expired’] misrepresents what the food is,” says Rauch. “‘Expired’ means there’s no more life—it shouldn’t be used. ‘Sell by,’ ‘Enjoy by,’ ‘Best by’—these are relatively new terms.

“Code dates are not regulated federally, outside of infant baby formula,” he adds. “There’s no federal regulation on dates, and in almost all instances, the states don’t regulate it either. The food you sell must be wholesome and healthy and give the customer adequate time to use it, but the rest is vague and ambiguous.”

Addressing shopper safety concerns

Long-time Dorchester-based chef and restaurateur Chris Douglass of Ashmont Grill says he hopes Daily Table is successful, but admits the idea of peddling out-of-date food might be a tough message to convey to residents.

“They have an uphill battle PR-wise,” says Douglass. “Using out-of-date food is a complicated conversation, and people don’t really understand it.”

Part of the strength behind Daily Table is Rauch’s long history in the grocery industry. But he also lined up a strong local partner in the effort, Codman Square Health Center. The health organization not only provides nutritional expertise but is also leasing him space for the retail store itself, and has helped connect him to the local Dorchester community. During a series of meetings, Rauch presented the Daily Table concept to residents in an effort to build community support for the new grocer.

The safety of “expired” food was a major concern among the residents, says Rauch, and his team came armed with independent reports such as the Natural Resources Defense Council’s “The Dating Game.” Ultimately, though, the proof will lie in his store’s success, he believes.

“You’ll never convince everyone until you’re up and running and can establish a safe track record–and that’s understandable,” he says.

Ultimately, he hopes Daily Table and other food stores like it can help launch a change in consumer attitudes that could lead to less wasted food from the start.

“The customer demands perfect-looking fruit, and nature doesn’t grow food that way,” he says. “We demand that our stores stay fully stocked until they close–no one is happy going to the store at 7:30 or 8 p.m. and finding that most of their perishable product is gone. We’d complain to the manager about how empty the store was, and then shop elsewhere if it continued. As long as this persists, there will be extensive unsold food.”

Clare Leschin-Hoar

Based in San Diego, Clare Leschin-Hoar specializes in reporting on seafood, sustainability and food trends. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, The Guardian, EatingWell, The Boston Globe and many more media outlets.

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