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Home Society Why don't grocery stores donate to charity?

Why don't grocery stores donate to charity?

Published on February 18 2020

We talk a lot about how grocery stores often end up with surplus food and how much of that food ends up in the trash. That surplus can happen because of human error like over-ordering, changing consumer habits, low popularity of an item, bad weather leading to less foot traffic in stores and more.

Grocery stores work hard to avoid surplus but, unfortunately, it does happen.

That’s where FoodHero steps in.

But… why don’t grocery stores just donate that surplus to charities like food banks, school breakfast programs, community kitchens and homeless shelters?

It seems like an obvious solution. Stores have all this perfectly good, delicious, nutritious food, and there are plenty of people in need of it. So, why don’t they?

There are a few reasons, and a few things to know. Here’s what they are...

Many do donate!

While it isn’t necessarily surplus food they donate, many stores do donate to local causes. For example, many IGA branches donate food to charity BBQs in their communities. Some stores partner with local breakfast programs to ensure children start their school days with full bellies, while others may partner with local food banks or community kitchens to help provide warm, nourishing meals for people in need.

These initiatives are usually coordinated between local branches or independent grocery stores and organizations in their community. There is usually a need for a specific type of food, or at least large quantities of items that will allow the organization to easily prepare several meals.

Facilities matter

Whenever you donate to local food drives, what do they ask for? Non-perishable items! They do this because many charitable organizations just don’t have the facilities to properly store fresh or frozen food.

You may have noticed that meat and seafood are common items listed for sale through FoodHero, and very often these items have been frozen. When fresh meat nears its sell-by date, it can be quickly frozen to extend its shelf life. But, it must be kept at a consistent temperature and if it thaws, it must be cooked immediately.

That works for consumers because you can buy a tray of frozen stewing beef, pop it in your home freezer, and use it when you’re ready. Charities can’t use one or two trays of meat to feed everyone who comes to them, and they don’t have the facilities to save up stock until they have enough. When fresh items like meat, dairy and produce come in, those items need to be used up immediately, or there will be nowhere to keep them.

Transportation is expensive

Setting aside the logistics of moving things from A to B, which can often be its own nightmare, the transportation costs frequently outweigh the benefits to many charitable organizations. On a day-to-day basis, most grocery stores only have a few surplus items to unload and the cost (both in terms of money and time) of arranging transportation is just too high. 

Quantities matter

We’ve mentioned quantity a few times now. For charitable organizations aimed at feeding people, quantities really do matter. They typically need to make huge batches of food to feed dozens, even hundreds, of people in a single day. These organizations see the reality of hunger every day and would probably love to be able to use every ounce of food available to help.

Unfortunately, the logistics just don’t support that. Meals at these organizations are usually carefully and efficiently planned, shopped for, prepared and served. There isn’t much room for flexibility. When they do partner with grocery stores, those stores either provide cash, or agree to donate specific quantities of specific items.

Fear of liability

Many grocery store owners worry about being sued if someone gets sick and believes it was caused by donated food. The truth is, there are a lot of legal protections for businesses that donate food in Canada, although those protections can vary from province to province. 

If you work with a charitable organization and have found this to be a roadblock in approaching grocery stores for donations, read up on the laws in your province and arm yourself with the knowledge to help put potential donors at ease!

They do donate!

Wait… did we already say that? It’s worth repeating! Yes, a grocery store is a business and it needs to be profitable to survive. But most recognize their responsibility to the communities in which they operate and their responsibility to the health of the planet. They also actively get involved with initiatives that mitigate the challenges mentioned above. For example, here in Montreal, there’s currently a significant effort underway to prevent grocery store food waste and large chains have jumped on board. These initiatives take a lot of coordination, support, time and other resources. They are worthwhile and can have huge benefits, but it’s important to recognize that it (sadly) isn’t as simple as just dropping off a donation. 

With government getting involved in the issue, as well as greater consumer awareness, solutions may soon be developed that make it feasible for even more surplus food to be donated to those in need.

What can you do as a consumer?

Food waste and surplus food happen and every stage of the food cycle, from farm to fork. It isn’t just grocery stores. That said, grocery stores are doing a lot to not only reduce waste but feed communities in need. As consumers, we can support those efforts by using FoodHero as much as possible, supporting in-store initiatives to help local charities, and even supporting food banks directly through food or cash donations.


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