Truckers, General Mills, Feeding America look to rescue good food from a bad end

Save them all! (Photo: FreightWaves)

Save them all! (Photo: FreightWaves)

The U.S. wastes edible food at an alarming rate. Each year, about 72 billion pounds of otherwise consumable foodstuffs never make it onto store shelves, according to estimates from Feeding America, a large hunger-relief group. Annually, that amounts to roughly 40 percent of all food in the US, the group said. Those figures don’t include the volumes of food that spoil either at rest or in transit. Nor does it cover the mountains of scraps thrown away every day by hotels, restaurants, consumers and the like.

There are several reasons for this. Overproduction sometimes leads to surpluses that distribution center space aren’t able to accommodate. Miscommunication among supply chain partners can push orders of incorrect quantities on facilities that aren’t expecting them. Slightly damaged shipments can result in products that are deemed commercially unsaleable but that are still consumable, nutritious, and pose no health risk. A food supply chain trained only to move goods in the forward direction may find it simpler to just dump rejected products rather than to reposition them through complex and mostly unfamiliar reverse logistics processes.

Perishable, packaged and dry goods are all affected, and the entire ecosystem-farmers, manufacturers, wholesalers/distributors and grocery chains alike--are unfortunate contributors. For example, about 20 billion pounds of farmed annual product goes to waste, according to Feeding America’s estimates.

It is unrealistic to expect all rejected volumes to get re-directed into the hands and mouths of needy folks. But some progress is better than none at all. That’s what Feeding America envisioned in mid-October when, along with food giant General Mills Inc., (NYSE:GIS) it launched a nationwide expansion of a year-old pilot program called “MealConnect Logistics.” The program integrates General Mills’ truck network with Feeding America’s “MealConnect” IT platform to allow fleets and drivers to reroute foodstuffs to one of Feeding America’s 200 food banks should the customer reject the shipment at the point of delivery, usually after a visual inspection. A driver already delivering food loads can then take a rejected load to a nearby food bank rather than dumping it in a landfill or another waste destination. The food banks, which operate like warehouses, link with 60,000 soup kitchens and food pantries nationwide.

Currently, 21 of General Mills’ carrier partners are enrolled in the program, said Blake Thompson, Feeding America’s chief supply chain officer. The carriers include J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc. (NASDAQ:JBHT); Knight-Swift Transportation, Inc. (NYSE:KNX); XPO Logistics, Inc. (NYSE:XPO), and Marten Transport, Ltd. (NASDAQ:MRTN).

“We have wonderful relationships with our country’s largest food manufacturers, and now their carrier partners can easily add a no-cost reverse logistics solution in serving them,” Thompson said.

So-called food donors such as grocery retailers, foodservice operators and distributors can use MealConnect to post surplus food that they wish to donate in their community.  MealConnect's algorithms then match the food donation with the best-suited nonprofit agency in the designated area. MealConnect was introduced in 2014.

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According to Feeding America, the first food bank that is offered a rejected load accepts that shipment 77 percent of the time. If the first food bank can’t handle the donation, the system contacts the next closest facility along a driver’s route. It is up to the manufacturer or retailer to determine how a rejected shipment is disposed of, Thompson said in a recent interview. Some shipments never reach a food bank and are instead repositioned elsewhere in the manufacturer’s or retailer’s systems, he added.

Nicola Dixon, associate director of the General Mills Foundation, said in a statement that the company has donated $1 million to expand the program, and has provided supply chain expertise to execute the mission. The funding has helped develop MealConnect mobile apps for iPhone and Android phones, enhanced the platform’s real-time matching capabilities to connect food donors to charities who can claim and receive the food, and makes it easier to serve truckers that find themselves with consumable food that can be donated, Dixon said. By automating formerly manual processes, MealConnect helps truckers expedite food deliveries to qualified banks and return to the road faster, she said.

Since MealConnect Logistics began in November 2017, it has facilitated the donation of 580,000 pounds of surplus food, Feeding America said. The program is expected to save 50 to 60 million pounds a year within 3 years, the group predicted. Feeding America continues to talk to other major food manufacturers and to additional truckers, Thompson said.

Even at the 60 million-pound threshold, it is still a fraction of the amount of edible food that gets tossed. Yet it is a start. The vast volume of waste is a stark reminder of the amount of deprivation that still exists in a land of unparalleled abundance. As the famed humorist Will Rogers lamented during the depths of the Great Depression, “we are the first nation in the history of the world to go to the poor house in an automobile.”