Former Trader Joe’s President on a Mission to End Food Waste

Trader Joe’s has become a business and multicultural success story.  From Greek yogurt to Spanish marcona almonds to Indonesian ginger candy to Finnish licorice, the company offers an impressive assortment of goods at competitive prices.  Once the store of choice for the underemployed PhD dropout who wanted cool food without having to cook it (or book a plane ticket), TJ’s has gone mainstream, sneaking into suburban strip malls left for dead on both coasts and the Midwest.

I’m a little biased towards the chain, and not just because I have memories of greeting two suitcases filled with the store’s stuff when my parents visited me once while I lived abroad.  During a tough economic climate, they are one of the few retailers who offer health insurance to employees on top of decent wages. Fair wages and low prices have served the company well: sales have quadrupled since 1990, and the chain has expanded to over 340 stores.  Many products are organic; TJ’s avoids genetically modified foods; discontinued selling irresponsibly source fish; and does a solid job encouraging its shoppers to use reusable bags.

Its former President, Doug Rauch, is now a fellow at Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, where he is sorting out how he can use his past experience to reduce food waste feed the hungry and teach citizens how to make healthier food choices.

The company he led gives him a good start.  One reason for TJ’s success is because of its food packaging—most of its products only come in one size.  Not only does that allow TJ’s to cram more products in a smaller store, but less food waste often occurs as a result.   But as is the case with every food retailer, plenty of food gets tossed at Trader Joe’s.  Rauch estimates that 5 billion pounds of food goes into TJs garbage bins annually. Much of it is “expired food” that still has a few shelf days remaining, but cannot get to a food bank in time.  Meanwhile, plenty of trucks troll our streets and highways that deliver their wares daily and return to distribution centers empty.  Perhaps there is a way to encourage those trucks to drop off unwanted groceries at food banks?  Rauch suggests that the US Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS find a way to get involved—he wants to find a way to incentivize these courier services to pick up and drop off these products as much as possible.

It does not take much research to figure that hunger in America is a complicated story.  As far back as I remember, I would hear about grain silos bulging with wheat that was not sold on the market while hunger festered in poor and rural areas.  Rauch believes that much of the problem is not the lack of calories, but consumption of the wrong ones—as the US obesity epidemic would indicate.  Faster food has led to faster weight gain:  Rauch is studying how these problems can be addressed, one current idea up for consideration is the use of extra food stamps that would only be good for fresh fruits and vegetables—the purchase of which is often a challenge in poor urban areas.

Hunger is increasing around the world, and other wealthy nations including the United Kingdom are also finding themselves increasingly frustrated with the issue.  Much of the problem, as Rauch believes, is not the lack of food, but poor timing.  I am curious to learn about the solutions Rauch comes up with in the coming year—but he has already intrigued me for putting off retirement and instead, working to see what kind of solution can be found to address such problems that will only get worse before they improve.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

8 responses

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  2. Why not simply call the food banks to pick up the unwanted food? Too simple?

    Or maybe they need to prove that the food is consumable ~ Maybe that is where the problem is?

  3. What about the logistics of people eating this food that is thrown out? I would be concerned about health issues. It may not be as simple as it sounds. And for the people who “dive”, do they take the food to food shelters?

    1. Food is good for an amazingly long time after “sell-by” dates. The only federally-mandated expiration dates are for baby formula. And as for the food I get when I dive, my kids and I generally eat it ourselves.

  4. It would be better for the non-profit charity to pick up the expired food. But what if more than one wants it? This is the reason for the free market: it sorts out demand for limited resources. Better to work on reducing poverty to minimal level and then manage that.

  5. Wow I guess some people will do anything for a buck ! Yes that food should go to the food banks as it dose now. We need things to change, what if we all helped out at the food banks just one day a month-We might be able to be the change everone wants. Please take a minute to think about it !!

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