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The World Wastes Tons of Food. A Grocery 'Happy Hour' Is One Answer.



HELSINKI, Finland – A "happy hour" at the S-market store in the working-class neighborhood of Vallila happens to be far from the liquor aisles and seems exactly convivial. Nobody is here for drinks or a good time.

Or a chicken, or a salmon fillet, or any of a few hundred items that are hours from their midnight expiration date. Food that is almost unsellable goes on sale at every one of S-Market's 900 stores in Finland, with prices already reduced by 30 percent slashed to 60 percent off at exactly 9 p.m. It's a part of a two-year campaign to reduce food waste that company executives in this famously bibulous country decided to call "happy hour" in hopes of drawing in regulars, like any decent bar.

“I've gotten quite hooked on this, ”said Kasimir Karkkainen, 27, who works in a hardware store as he browses the meat section of the Vallila S-market. It was 9:15 and he had grabbed a container of pork mini-ribs and two pounds of shrink-wrapped pork tenderloin.

"There's been a lot of focus on energy," said Paul Behrens, a professor in Energy and Environmental Change at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. “But climate change is as much a land issue and a food issue as anything else.”

Reducing waste is a challenge because selling as much food as possible is a tried, tested and ingrained part of all-you-can-eat cultures. Persuading merchants to promote and profit from “food rescue,” as it is known, is not obvious.

“Consumers are paying for food, and who wants to reduce that?” Said Toine Timmermans, director of United Against The Food Waste Foundation, a nonprofit in the Netherlands, is composed of companies and research institutes. “Who Profits From Reducing Food Waste?”

A growing number of supplements, restaurants and start-ups – many based in Europe – are trying to answer that question. The United States is another matter.

"Food waste might be a uniquely American challenge because many people in this country equate to a bargain," said Meredith Niles, an assistant professor in food systems and policy at the University of Vermont. “Look at the number of restaurants that advertise their supersized portions.”

Nine of the 10 United States supermarket chains that were rated by the Nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity last year were given a C grade or lower on food- waste issues. Only Walmart did better, largely for its efforts to standardize dated labels and educate staff and customers.

Some of the most promoted food waste efforts are apps that connect food sellers to food buyers. Think Tinder, except one party in this hookup, is a person and the other is an aging loaf of bread.

Among the most popular is Too Good to Go, a Copenhagen-based company with 13 million customers and contracts with 25,000 restaurants and bakeries in 11 countries. Consumers pay about one-third of the sticker price for items, most of which goes to the retailer, with a small percentage paid to the app.

In Denmark, food rescue has a scale and momentum of a cultural movement, one with her own intellectual godmother: Selina Juul, a graphic designer who immigrated from Russia at the age of 13.

“I came from a country where there was a fear that we would not have food on the table tomorrow, where there were food shortages, ”she said in a phone interview. “When we emigrated, I had never seen so much food. I was shocked. Then I was shocked again when I saw how many food people were. ”

In 2008, at the age of 28, she started a Facebook group called Stop Wasting Food. Within weeks, she was being interviewed on the radio. Soon after that, she came to the attention of Anders Jensen, the buying director at REMA 1000, the largest supermarket chain in Denmark.

“I was on a business trip to Scotland and I read about Selina in a newspaper,” Mr . Jensen recalls. “Around that time, we learned that every day was thrown out 63 kilos of food per year” – about 139 pounds – “and I was sitting at this airport thinking, she was right.”

After two in a Copenhagen cafe , REMA 1000 eliminated in-store bulk discounts. As of 2008, there would be no more than three hams for the price of two, or any variations on that theme.

“It was exploded in the media because it was the first time a retailer said,‘ O.K. if we sell less, '' Mr. Jensen said.

"It's like an episode of 'Master Chef' every day," said Johanna Kohvakka, founder of the nonprofit From Waste to Taste, which operates Loop. “But we try to make every dish look great so that people can share images online and say, 'This was about to be wasted.'”

Ms. Kohvakka says Loop turns a profit and could serve as a model for similar ventures. Executives at S-Market in Finland make no such claims about their happy hour. Mika Lyytikainen, an S-market vice president, explained that the program simply explained its losses.

“When we sell at 60 percent off, we don't earn any money, but we earn more than if the food was given to charity, ”he said. “On the other hand, it's now possible for every Finn to buy very cheap food in our stores.”

It's not unusual to find groups of S-market shoppers milling around with soon-to-be-discounted items from the shelves and waiting for the clock to strike at 9. "I've done that," Mr.

Other Finns, it seems, have a fully embraced S-market anti-waste ethos. Harri Hartikainen, 71, was shopping one evening in Vallila and considered a 60 percent off box of Kansas City-style grilled chicken wings.

“But still so cheap, if I like it, I can just throw it out.”


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