WESTBROOK — Brian Cunningham comes to work at 4 a.m. to squeeze peppers and tomatoes.

It takes Cunningham, the produce shift leader at Hannaford supermarket in Westbrook, two hours to perform a “deep cull,” in which he scrutinizes or handles the cornucopia that greets shoppers in the modern American food store.

He asks himself: “Would I buy this myself ?”

If the answer is “no,” Cunningham tosses the less-than-perfect vegetable or fruit into a box.

Last year, this quest for perfection led to 7.2 million pounds being donated to local food pantries by Maine’s 60 Hannaford stores. Another 7.8 million pounds were sent to farms to be turned into compost or energy. That translates into 1.5 percent of Hannaford’s food being donated or composted, the company says.

Brian Cunningham, produce shift leader, sorts through peppers and other vegetables to cull those to be donated to local food pantries, a daily duty at Hannaford in Westbrook. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Brian Cunningham, produce shift leader, sorts through peppers and other vegetables to cull those to be donated to local food pantries, a daily duty at Hannaford in Westbrook.
Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Some politicians and hunger-relief advocates lament food waste in America. But Mark Lapping, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Southern Maine and an expert of food policy, said retailers simply are responding to what their customers want.

“We have ‘Playboyed’ our food,” Lapping said, making an analogy about Americans idealizing people and things. “We buy our food based on how it looks and how it’s packaged, not the calories we can get from it. Shopping is a sensual experience. We shop with our eyes. That’s why produce is first in the door.”

At Hannaford, workers will perform three other smaller culls during the day. Any fruit or vegetable that doesn’t look or feel up to standards gets pulled. Other workers perform similar culls in the bakery and deli departments.

FEEDING HUNGRY MAINERS

Much has been said and written recently about the amount of food Americans waste. The National Resources Defense Council has estimated that as much as 40 percent of all food that’s produced is never eaten. Some of that waste takes place after the food is bought. But millions of pounds a year are culled by supermarkets, which is why they play an outsized role in supporting Maine’s food pantries.

Shortly after 6 a.m., Shannon LeBlanc, bakery service leader, wheels cakes and other bakery items past their selling dates to Hannaford’s loading dock for food pantry collection. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Shortly after 6 a.m., Shannon LeBlanc, bakery service leader, wheels cakes and other bakery items past their selling dates to Hannaford’s loading dock for food pantry collection.
Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Food pantries and meal programs have become an increasingly important part of a multimillion-dollar distribution network that’s expanding in Maine to meet the needs of more than 200,000 residents who otherwise would be hungry, a condition that’s worsening despite an overall improving economy.

Federal figures show food insecurity, a measure of a household’s inability to afford enough food throughout the year, has been escalating in Maine to a level that’s the highest in New England and above the national average. The latest government survey shows roughly 16 percent of households are food insecure. Hunger relief advocates blame a combination of reasons, including stagnant wages, Maine’s higher cost of living and an aging population.

In response, a parallel food-supply system is ramping up to distribute food to more than 600 food pantries, meal programs and other partner agencies from Kittery to Madawaska, which provide it free of charge to hungry residents.

The role of supermarkets in the system was highlighted in mid-December, when the Portland Press Herald reported that Shaw’s Supermarkets was discontinuing a long-standing policy of donating unsold food to hunger-relief programs. For years, Shaw’s had been Maine’s third-largest donor to the Good Shepherd Food Bank, the state’s largest. It began phasing out donations after 2013, although it continues to support hunger relief efforts with food drives. The company, which was sold three years ago to the Cerberus Capital Management investors group, has repeatedly declined to say why the change was made.

The news led U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, to contact the company’s president, Jim Rice, and ask him to explain the policy. The company then said it would reinstate the donations at a store in Brunswick.

Pingree has an interest in food waste issues and introduced a bill in Congress that, among other things, would clarify when manufacturer “sell-by” dates are only recommendations, not an indicator that the food is unsafe to eat. Pingree is in the process of getting co-sponsors for her bill. It’s unclear what actions might be taken this year on the bill, or the dozens of provisions it contains, according to her spokesman, Willy Ritch. One provision that increases tax deductions for businesses and farmers that donate food was included in a bill signed last month by President Obama, Ritch said.

Volunteer Doug Horner loads boxes of day-old produce from Hannaford in Westbrook into his vehicle to take to the Stroudwater Food Pantry in Westbrook. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Volunteer Doug Horner loads boxes of day-old produce from Hannaford in Westbrook into his vehicle to take to the Stroudwater Food Pantry in Westbrook.
Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Ritch also said staffers in Pingree’s office have been “talking regularly with Shaw’s, and we know they are working on this issue.” A Shaw’s spokesperson, Teresa Edington, declined to answer questions from the newspaper about the chain’s food-donation policies and what’s happening now to millions of pounds of unsold food. She said the supermarket chain didn’t have any information to share at this time.

Food waste affects more than hungry people.

Last fall, the federal government announced the nation’s first food-waste reduction goal, calling for a 50 percent drop by 2030. The effort is being spearheaded by the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. Beyond contributing to hunger and poverty, wasted food is the largest single part of municipal garbage, the EPA says. Decomposition makes landfills the nation’s third largest source of climate-changing methane gas.

“Food waste has actually been growing at the same time food banks are growing,” said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic and Harvard University.

Waste is growing, Leib said, because the per capita cost of food – spending as a proportion of income – generally has been falling since 1960, according to USDA figures. As food has become relatively cheap, she said, people are more prone to throw it out. That tendency grows as fewer people know how or are inclined to repurpose food, such as making sauce from overripe tomatoes.

CUSTOMERS’ COSMETIC STANDARDS

Overripe tomatoes don’t make the cut with Brian Cunningham at Hannaford.

On a cart, he has seven cardboard banana boxes. By 6 a.m., they are filled with apples, tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers and other produce that’s perfectly edible but doesn’t meet the exacting cosmetic standards expected by most customers. One box contains fruit and vegetables that are damaged or decomposing to the point where they are headed for the compost bin. Each box weighs between 20 and 40 pounds.

Cunningham feels tomatoes from Backyard Farms in Madison. He runs his hand across almost every one. Then it’s on to the peppers.

Shannon LeBlanc, bakery service leader at Hannaford in Westbrook, checks the dates on cakes and other bakery items for food pantry donations. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Shannon LeBlanc, bakery service leader at Hannaford in Westbrook, checks the dates on cakes and other bakery items for food pantry donations.
Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

“It’s edible, but it’s showing signs,” Cunningham says of a pepper, which he places in a box. “It’s a living, breathing product.”

Then he examines mushrooms. Some are loose, and a few portobellos get tossed. Others are in packages. They get scanned, so the store computer knows what’s lost in the daily “shrink,” as supermarkets call products that aren’t sold.

“A lot of times, it’s just appearance,” says Kacey Pike, the store’s manager.

In the prep area, a plastic wheeled trash tote is filled with fruit. Like a giant fruit salad, it has watermelons, grapes and blueberries. But these are too far gone to sell, so they will go to Brick Ends Farm in Massachusetts. The farm will turn it into compost. Some of it will come back in bags that customers will buy for their plants.

Other Hannaford stores send food to Agri-Cycle Energy in Exeter, which uses it for feedstock in anaerobic digesters that generate heat for a large dairy farm.

Hannaford has a food diversion program, with this hierarchy: People, farmers, compost.

In the bakery department, Shannon LeBlanc is checking the code dates on every cake, pie and loaf of bread. The bakery service leader, she or someone else does this job every day. By 6:30 a.m., she has two grocery carts filled with goodies and breads headed for food pantries. Surplus bakery products aren’t uncommon, because the store always wants to have a variety of offerings, even if some don’t sell well.

“We just never want a customer to come in and not find what they are looking for,” Pike says.

By 7:30 a.m., produce, bakery items and other donations are on the loading docks. Each day, different partners, vetted through Good Shepherd, come by to pick up the food. This day, it’s Stroudwater Food Pantry.

NOT AS PRETTY, BUT CHEAPER

This expanding system is feeding lots of hungry people, but Leib said the practice has limitations.

“If this is going to be part of the long-term landscape,” she said, “are there ways that are more sustainable, that create market opportunities?”

One option Leib noted is the Daily Table, a new, not-for-profit grocery store that opened last year in Boston. It was started by the former president of Trader Joe’s, Doug Rauch. The store recovers food from supermarkets, distributors and growers that otherwise would be wasted and sells it at a deep discount. It aims to expand to other cities and offer healthy food options to the working poor.

Another model is being used by a supermarket chain called Grocery Outlet, which calls itself the nation’s largest extreme value grocery retailer. The chain, which is based in California and has 230 stores, buys surplus inventory and product overruns from manufacturers.

Near San Francisco, a startup called Imperfect Produce is selling what it calls “cosmetically challenged” fruit and vegetables, produce that makes the cut in farm fields or supermarkets. It delivers boxes of produce to homes and businesses.

Leib said these alternatives can create options that still let consumers pick the food they will consume.

“Otherwise it seems like a big jump,” she said. “Either you pay full price and have choice, or get food for free and have no choice.”