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This new grocery store wants to sell old food for cheap to cure hunger

If you picked up an apple with a bruise on its side, would you buy it or put it back on the shelf? Most Americans would probably choose the latter, and that’s contributing to a national problem of food waste. A report released in February found that the US wastes about 60 million metric tons of food each year, which amounts to $162 billion.

At the same time, more than 49 million Americans live in a state of food insecurity, defined by the USDA as a "household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food." It is a paradoxical problem of both surplus and deficit, which makes one wonder if there isn't an easy solution to the whole mess.

Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s, might have the answer. This month, Rauch opened Daily Table, a not-for-profit grocery store in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. Drawing from donations and cheaply bought produce, Daily Table hopes to give the working poor healthier options and fast-food prices.

Here’s a rundown of Rauch’s new Daily Table.

Is it safe?

This is the oft-repeated question. Daily Table is quick to point out that it will "absolutely NOT!" be selling food that is spoiled or otherwise unsafe. This, however, doesn’t mean that the company won’t sell food past "sell by" dates.

Rauch is right to note the difference between unsafe and simply expired food. According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School, sell-by dates tell consumers almost nothing about the safety or quality of food. In fact, the report finds that the FDA, in practice, provides little oversight of food labeling — meaning that there are no standardized rules or definitions for determining at what point food "expires."

But while the FDA has no laws against selling food past sell-by dates, the bigger hurdle is convincing consumers that the practice is safe. In an Atlantic article from last summer, Dana Gunders, a scientist from the Natural Resource Defense Council (a nonprofit environmental advocacy group), defended the grocery store's unconventional approach: "Doug has been criticized for trying to sell poor people trash," she says. "But this points to a fundamental misunderstanding about what constitutes high-quality food. Just because food does not look perfect does not mean that it is not delicious and nutritious."

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, explained that eating food close to or past its sell-by date is not necessarily a problem. "In general, there is a problem in America that our sell-by date doesn’t really distinguish between what is for safety versus cosmetic versus totally meaningless."

Berg explained how even concepts like "new" or "fresh" are based on cultural understandings, rather than issues of food safety. Take bananas: "Many Westerners would buy either green or yellow," Berg said; however, "some people from other countries would think that’s no good. They would not eat them until they are a little more brown — what Westerners might perceive of as bruised."

Is it enough to end hunger?

Although concerns about safety seem unwarranted, Berg was skeptical that new models like Daily Table will be able to tackle hunger on their own.

"Everyone wants the newest nifty social venture to solve the problem so that we can all feel good about this, but the only way we can really solve the problem is societal wide structural leadership to create more jobs, raise wages, and expand the safety net."

By "safety net," Berg was referring to the federal nutritional safety net — a collection of federal programs, including SNAP, WIC, and school lunch and breakfast programs — worth more than $100 billion. "By my most expansive estimate," Berg explained, "the charitable food safety net is $5 billion or less." Given the difference in magnitude, it seems that federal policies, rather than individual nonprofits, have a better chance at fixing hunger in America.

For this reason, Daily Table might have a better chance at making a dent in food waste, rather than hunger. Considering the amount of food that is thrown away just because it isn’t considered pretty enough, Daily Table has the ability not only to minimize food waste, but also to change our attitudes toward food. As with Berg’s banana example, perhaps it is time  America reevaluates these attitudes.

An ethical conundrum

Last October, the Nonprofit Quarterly released an article titled "An Ethical Question: Recycled Expired Food for Sale to Poor" — looking specifically at Daily Table. The article showed statistics about the racial makeup of Codman Square in Dorchester, the then-planned site for Rauch’s supermarket, and asked readers about their ethical views on the issue. The racial makeup is 47 percent black and 12 percent Latino; whites make up less than a third of the Dorchester population. The article seemed to suggest that in addition to concerns that Daily Table would serve bad food to poor communities, there were also underlying racial concerns of having unwanted food delivered to a neighborhood with a significant black population.

Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey suggested that Daily Table could cause "inverse gentrification," because it would perpetuate stereotypes about impoverished Dorchester residents and the quality of life in the neighborhood. "I have a problem with the model," Yancey was reported to have said in the Dorchester Reporter. "You have to ask what effect this is going to have on many of our food banks. If food’s not going to food banks, it’s going here. Are we going to have less for the truly needy?"

Diverting the supply stream

Yancey certainly raises an interesting point. Both Whole Foods and Wegmans (two supermarket chains that are included in Daily Table’s list of food donors) also have separate donation programs, which have been in place before the opening of Daily Table. Whole Foods claims that all stores donate food directly to food pantries and shelters. Wegmans also donates food and cash donations to local food banks. This raises concerns about whether Daily Table — which does charge customers — may be diverting food away from food banks that provide the same foods for free.

Daily_table_flowchart

Javier Zarracina | Vox

However, many food banks and pantries have requirements that can limit the number of people they serve: many food banks are only open once or twice a month; others have restrictions barring customers from receiving food donations more than once a month. Additionally, many food pantries require a referral from food nonprofit Project Bread; again, these referrals can only be obtained once a month per household.

Food pantries may also require proof of income, residence, or citizenship — all of which can be difficult for some people to produce. Given the requirements that are asked of some customers, it is possible that paying for food at Daily Table is a better option.

The Greater Boston Food Bank, which distributes meals to pantries and community centers around the city, also appears on Daily Table’s list of food donors. However, there are legal safeguards stopping GBFB from providing donated food to Daily Table, given that the supermarket plans to sell the food. Catherine Drennan, the public and government relations coordinator for GBFB, explained to me that for now, Daily Table will be purchasing items through GBFB’s co-op program, which sells bulk food at a low cost.

If Dorchester’s Daily Table is successful, Rauch plans to invest in more supermarkets across the country. At the moment, he is seeking money to open two more Boston stores. Drennan described the venture as an "innovative and emerging model," and indeed it will be interesting to see if more entrepreneurs follow this path.