One of the most popular new consumer spending trends at the grocery store is the purchase of prepared foods, which allow shoppers to have something like a home-cooked meal in a matter of minutes.
There is a problem, however, when those prepared foods don’t get purchased.
Grocery store managers have to deal with a delicate balance of making sure they have the prepared foods customers want without preparing too much of it so that there is significant waste at the end of the day. Unlike frozen goods or packaged foods, prepared foods cannot be repackaged for another day.
"We can't repackage it, freeze it, hold on to it and then distribute it through our mobile pantry the next days," said Katy Bunder, executive director of Food Finders, an Indiana-based group that redistributes unsellable supermarket food to food banks.
Most states require prepared foods that have been cooked be sold daily; it cannot be re-served the next day as is.
In order to get shoppers into groceries and markets, stores have in recent years increased their offerings of prepared foods like salads, rotisserie chicken, casseroles and meat dishes like meat loaf and pot roast. Grocery chains make their name on the quality of their hot-bar offerings (chicken wings, soups, pasta dishes) and fresh pick-and-choose salad bars.
A 2013 report by Nielsen said that fully-cooked beef meals in groceries and markets have increased by 89 percent (dollar value) and 77 percent (volume) over the past 10 years.
Similarly, a one-year 11 percent increase has been recorded in what is termed “entrees’’, such as ethnic dishes like Mexican, Chinese or Italian food.
Another relatively new consumer spending trend is the interest in prepared vegetable dishes, including casseroles. Nielsen reported a 16 percent increase in prepared vegetable side dishes among groceries and markets in American in 2013.
That’s actually great from a health standpoint; prepared goods of that nature are healthier than most frozen foods ore pre-packaged foods.
But when a store offers those attractive roasted chickens and side that can provide a dinner for a family of four, it has to concern itself with having enough for every consumer who wants one without preparing food that won’t be purchased. That rotisserie chicken, which has been seasoned and roasted to perfection, cannot be resold the next day.
The same is true for prepared salads, and many stores can have half a dozen different types of salads available to the consumer who wants to eat well but does not have time to prepare a meal himself. But consumers are reluctant to buy the last scoop of salad in a bowl, and store managers have to balance the desire to please the consumer with an attractive offering with the desire to avoid leftovers.
The statistics for food waste in America are staggering. The Environmental Protection Agency says food waste comprises 21.3 percent of total U.S. Municipal Solid Waste generated in 2001, which translates to 36 million tons of wasted food.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 10 percent of the available food supply in the U.S. is wasted every year at the retail level, and 20 percent of food that is purchased is wasted in homes.
So what is the answer to grocery stores and wasted food?
Kitchens in grocery stores will repurpose food when possible; rotisserie chickens can be cut and served the next day in chicken salads or as hot-bar offerings. Similarly, produce that has “gone over”, like bananas and peppers, can be used in fruit and vegetable salads.
Some stores have arrangements with local food banks to have representatives pick up food at the end of the day to serve to the needy the next day. But in those cases, care must be taken that the food is properly refrigerated or stored to make it safe for the second-day consumers.
Finally, any food that cannot be redirected is either composted or thrown away.
According to the Washington Post, some food kitchens won’t accept freshly prepared foods that are offered in a “hot bar’’ or buffet style. The D.C. Central Kitchen will not accept any buffet-style food “to prevent against adulteration and other food safety issues,’’ according to DCCK procurement manager Stephen Kendall. He said the DCCK will accept “items that were prepared for a hot bar or buffet application but never actually made it there.”
In general, both the Department of Agriculture and the EPA encourage the consumer spending trend toward eating prepared foods when cooking at home is not possible. It is healthier and does not produce as much packaging as frozen or pre-packaged foods.
But consumers should also understand that grocery retailers are trying to balance offerings with the wisdom to avoid waste. So if your grocery is out of chicken Caesar salad when you get there late, don’t be upset. Try the macaroni salad instead.
Kent McDill is a staff writer for Millionaire Corner. McDill spent 30 years as a sports writer, working for United Press International and the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill. From 1988-1999, he covered the Chicago Bulls for the Daily Herald, traveling with them every day through the nine-month season. He also covered the Bulls for UPI from 1985-88, and currently covers the team for www.nba.com. He has written two books on the Bulls, including the new title “100 Things Bulls Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die’, published by Triumph Books. In August 2013, his new book “100 Things Bears Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die” gets published.
In 2008, he resigned from the Herald and became a freelance writer. The Herald hired him to write business features and speeches for the Daily Herald Business Conferences and Awards presentations.
McDill also writes a monthly parenting column for the Herald’s Suburban Parent magazine.
McDill is the father of four children, and an active fan of soccer, Jimmy Buffett and all things Disney.