STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next, we have a breathtaking statistic. About one-third of the food sold in grocery stores and restaurants never gets eaten. From bruised fruits and vegetables to shoppers not understanding the best-before date is not a command to throw out, there's a mountain of food just slipping through our fingers and into the trash. As part of our series exploring food waste, we look at how food retailers are trying to reduce that waste and why you, the consumer, are responsible for much of it. Kristofer Husted, of member station KBIA in Missouri, reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRICE SCANNER BEEPING)
KRISTOFOR HUSTED, BYLINE: Shirley Phelps is perusing the banana stand at the Hy-Vee grocery store in Independence, Missouri. She's looking for the perfect bunch for her cereal.
SHIRLEY PHELPS: I don't want them too ripe. I want them to ripen a little bit. So I'm going to pick out this bunch.
HUSTED: She grabs a bunch of medium-sized bananas still tinged with green, not the neighboring bunch that's already turning color.
PHELPS: They're too ripe. They have brown spots all over them, and they would be banana bread before I would have a chance to try to do anything with them.
HUSTED: That's a problem for Paul Hoppman.
PAUL HOPPMAN: Perfectly good banana, but won't sell 'cause it just doesn't look good.
HUSTED: Hoppman manages this grocery store and says presentation is everything in this business. That means culling the aisles for brown fruit, putting the prettiest produce up front and filling the stands to the brim with bounty year-round.
HOPPMAN: That's a fine line you're walking, having that best fruit out there that is going to taste good to the customer but not breaking down yet. So we're always rotating...
HUSTED: But it's consumers who are largely responsible for wasting food. Shoppers demand stocked shelves, generally buy too much and treat food as a renewable resource. Ten percent of the available food supply in the U.S. is wasted every year in stores. And more than a fifth of the food consumers bring home ends up in the garbage.
KATY BUNDER: To me, the biggest amount of wasted food is prepared food.
HUSTED: Katy Bunder says she's scrambling to deal with waste from premade meals as more stores cater to convenience shoppers with ready-made dishes.
BUNDER: We can't repackage it, freeze it, hold onto it and then distribute it through our mobile pantry the next day.
HUSTED: She heads an Indiana group called Food Finders that distributes to food banks. But one of the biggest causes of all this food being wasted is confusion. Most consumers just don't understand date labels on food.
I'm standing in the snack aisle of the local market down the street from our station, picking up some chips and some nuts for our pledge drive. And I'm grabbing some cashew, cranberry and almond trail mix. And on the back of this bottle, there is a label that says, best by July 21, 2015. Now, researchers say that that label actually isn't a date that's an expiration date. It's put there by the producer so you eat this trail mix at its most fresh.
LONDA NWADIKE: The dates are just kind of an indication of how long the food has been around. But they're not really an indication of how safe the food is.
HUSTED: Food safety specialist Londa Nwadike says many consumers mistake sell-by and best-by dates for expiration dates and overlook perfectly safe food. That means lots of food gets tossed out that shouldn't. Hy-Vee's Paul Hoppman says that confusion also leaves stores with tons of food that no one will buy.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRASH COMPACTOR)
HUSTED: Just outside the Hy-Vee store, Hoppman's 40-yard long trash compactor is crushing packaging materials. It used to compact food waste too, but now he's using compost bins.
HOPPMAN: If you just look in there, that's from salad bar, the trimmings that they had, just trimming stuff up... Looks like some lettuce.
HUSTED: Hoppman's store used to haul away landfill waste three times each week. Thanks to the compost pile, it's now only three times a month. It also works with church food banks whose workers swing by every day to pick up unsold food. And many stores now use software to help them decide just how much food to order from the warehouse. Still, Hoppman says even with those advances, food waste remains a big problem at the retail level.
HOPPMAN: As the stores have grown, that food waste has - it became more and more all the time. My progression of working in stores was 20,000, to a 30,000, to a 60,000, and then this store's 82,000 square feet.
HUSTED: And until consumers stop overbuying and start understanding date labels, there will likely be lots of space in grocery stores across the country with food that will never be eaten. For NPR News, I'm Kristofor Husted.
INSKEEP: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, which is a public radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.