BioCycle November 2017
So Amazon bought Whole Foods. Big deal. I buy many things from Amazon, like DVDs and books, but for my meat and produce I go to the Ballard Market. The Ballard Market in Seattle is a great store, with lots of variety and excellent quality in the produce department. Much of it is even from local growers. I gave up Whole Foods many years back once I discovered Ballard. The big deal in my grocery shopping this summer was renovation of the Ballard Market. Ballard reduced shelf space and variety in a number of departments to make room for more prepared foods.
I am not happy about this. I would much rather they had kept the fresh feta cheese and foregone the sushi bar. But it turns out that the two things — the Whole Food purchase and the Ballard remodel — are in fact related. Both signify a paradigm shift in how we buy food and this shift will in turn have major implications on the quantity of food waste — edible and nonedible — generated on the retail level.
This was made clear to me during a chance meeting. A friend of my son had interned with an Internet start up that offers delivery of ingredients and recipes, much like Blue Apron. We ended up having a lengthy and enlightening conversation about the future of grocery shopping and food waste. Say Amazon is right, and not everyone is so enamored with picking out their own peaches. Say that many will opt for the convenience of home delivery perhaps coupled with recipes and menu planning. What does that do for food waste?
You can start by thinking about “normal” grocery shopping. One thing I love about the Ballard Market is the sheer beauty of their produce department. That beauty comes with a significant amount of waste. Having produce out on display increases the amount of produce that is wasted in a number of ways. Produce on display is not kept under optimal conditions to prevent spoilage. Those misters keep stuff fresher looking on the top and promote rot for the bunches on the bottom of the pile. Not everything that gets misted benefits from the mist. The piles of produce outside of the mister also can rot more quickly than they would if kept optimally stored.
Plus there is the whole matter of aesthetics. Those displays have to look plentiful. That is part of their appeal. That abundance also signals a higher waste potential. As the stuff on the bottom rotates to the top some of it will have spots and spoilage, neither of which command a premium price. Finally, when I am allowed to pick my own produce I will go for the prettiest and the freshest. Just think of buying corn on the cob. I won’t think less of you if you admit to being someone who partially opens the corn to make sure that the kernels are full to the top and that there are no worms or worm residue.
Now take that and replace it with the Amazon model. The displays are gone and so is the need for bounty. The ability to chose your own is also gone. Using a wealth of data, Amazon can figure out just how many not perfect or gigantic apples you can get in your order and still consider yourself a satisfied customer. They can also figure out how many people are likely to order how many different kinds of apples. The amount of data they have access to following the Whole Foods purchase will enable them to do just that. Whole Foods stores are spread across the U.S. in high- end zip codes.
For tech people, this means having a trove of data to use as a tool to transform the grocery industry. If this model of food purchasing succeeds, it will fundamentally change how we buy food and will also reduce the amount of food that is wasted. It will also challenge the survival of traditional grocery stores. Between Amazon and Blue Apron, it turns out that the Ballard Market was smart to do the remodel.
Grocery stores are starting to morph into to-go prepared meal centers. The new prepared food section at Ballard Market now covers the entire wall that used to include cheeses and olives. The freestanding cases that had even more cheeses and olives now have a wide variety of options for your lunch, dinner and dessert. This is a way to differentiate themselves and stay competitive. It also may reduce the amount of waste. If the chefs at Ballard prepare your food they are less likely than a home cook to buy more ingredients than they need. Any extra ingredients can be repurposed.
In addition to reducing food waste, this reinvention of the grocery store has other implications. How we grow and distribute food may change if the Amazon model catches on. It may also change our whole approach to reducing food waste. Take the Ballard Market. All of its not perfect produce currently gets donated to local food banks. The actual food that is wasted can be composted thanks to local regulations. If the volume of food waste is significantly reduced on the retail level, that might also mean a reduction in volume at the household level. In short, Amazon may effectively redefine how we shop for groceries and as a result of this redefinition, we may experience a significant decline in quantities of food scraps. Revolutionizing the current food waste landscape may be just one click away.
Sally Brown is a Research Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board.