Old Food–Going Once, Going Twice…


I didn’t know that food auctions existed before reading this line in Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent op-ed:

The rural poor are turning increasingly toJapanese tuna auction. photo by a culinary (photo) journal via creative commons “food auctions,” which offer items that may be past their sell-by dates.

Auctions sell food from supermarket chains’ warehouses, some of which may have damaged packaging or old dates. Yet, those running the auctions all claim that the goods are “safe” and ‘things they’d feed their children.’

I don’t doubt that they are, but I’m curious what amount of items are past their sell-by date. As we learn in this AP story, out-of-code foods are auctioned off and they’re usually fine:

Some of the goodies have wound up here because they’re out-of-date. But the auctioneers stress that they’re still OK to eat. The Food and Drug Administration does not generally prohibit the sale of food past its sell-by or use-by date — manufacturers’ terms that help guide the rotation of shelf stock or indicate the period of best flavor or quality.

Driven by an expansion of the secondary food market–namely dollar stores and discount retailers–less edible but unsellable food now falls into the quicksand of waste. What I’m wondering is whether food auctions are contributing to this trend.

Has anyone been to one of these food auctions? If you have or even if you haven’t, I’d love to hear your impressions/thoughts on them.

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  1. Posted June 17, 2009 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    I’m not entirely sure I follow your pondering–”What I’m wondering is whether food auctions are contributing to this trend.”–but I tend to look at these food auctions as a form of source waste stream reduction. My impression of these auctions is that the rural folks who attend them are more savvy when it comes to food than city folks are. This is a serious generalization, and not generally applicable, but It’s basically the difference between looking at the package’s _____ by date and asking whether the food looks, smells, sounds or tastes good still. Some people trust the package dates, and those folks can be fairly sheepish (like a person who waits at the stopped crosswalk when no cars are going by, or conversely the person who gets the go-ahead from the crosswalk, but fails to see the guy who’s running the red light). In a lot of cases, that food that goes to auction would go to waste, but in a community with a fully-functioning food-recovery program, it’s basically being taken from the repurposing of soup kitchens and food pantries.

    My impression of these food auctions, is that they are generally charging people for what they could have formally gotten for free. If you’re looking to get restaurant quality and quantity food however, it’s a good bet for sure.
    Peace and Love,

  2. Posted June 17, 2009 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    To clarify: I’m wondering if auctions contribute to the trend of preventing edible but unsellable food from going to waste.

    You raise an important question–are food auctions competing with food banks for food? That’s something we need to figure out. It’s great that the food on auction is being saved from the ‘waste pile,’ but less great if it means food banks are worse off.

  3. Posted June 18, 2009 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    First of all, wow. I just got paraphrased in another blog, probably seconds after posting my comment. Word.

    For me though, it’s not even a question. There’s a company in the Greater Binghamton Area called Behlogs that purchases out of date and off specification produce from the Maines Warehouse (the same warehouse that now donates between four and seven tons of produce to us) and sells it to local markets and restaurants. Maines also sells its meat products that are off spec or out of date to the auctions. Now, because we have a solid food recovery program at CHOW, called Broome Bounty, any of this food would have been part of our donation stream were it not sold to retailers who then turn around and sell it, in many cases, to the people who would seek to access community meals and food resources.

    This being said, I want to stress that in areas where there aren’t great food recovery programs, such things would not be the case. If there isn’t a clearinghouse for recovered food to be donated to the hungry, then there isn’t a way for the individual food pantries and soup kitchens to access these large-scale donations from big wholesalers and corporations. In those communities, I believe that these auctions and junk sellers (not to be confused with junk food sellers) do repurpose food that would have otherwise been thrown away.

    So, just to paraphrase myself: in a community with a sweet food recovery program, the auctions are going to be competing for the same stuff, and probably winning out because they can probably provide better revenue streams for the wholesaler than the enhanced tax deductions can (though not necessarily), and in the communities without a solid infrastructure to handle large quantities of out of date or off spec food, the auctions are going to be a good waste-stream management tool.
    Peace and Love,

  4. Posted June 18, 2009 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    Glad to hear your words are getting through to others, Dan. And that your area’s food recovery operation makes it into the ‘sweet’ category. I don’t doubt it! I’d certainly put your Broome Bounty name in that category. (Was that name inspired by the great Bloom County comic strip, to which I have no relation, but a great affinity?)

    But, yeah, my non-capitalist side thinks it’d be best if stores just gave their out-of-codes to food banks and let them distribute them to the needy gratis, rather than the stores selling them to auctioners who sell them to the needy. Unfortunately, where there’s a market, entrepreneurs will step in. And, like you say, that’s not a bad thing in areas where this slightly old food had been just going to waste.

  5. Posted June 19, 2009 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Broome Bounty actually refers to Broome County, which is the New York State County in which CHOW Operates, and the county which claims Binghamton as its major city.

    And just to give credit where credit’s due, the Produce Project on here served as a good inspiration for me to approach Wegmans and Maines about recovering their culled produce. Those 10-15 thousand pounds of fruits and veggies a month have been warmly received by the Frito-Lay infested hunger outreach agencies of our county. So, yea we’re pretty sweet, and so is the stuff you’re putting out here on your blog.
    Peace and Love,

  6. Posted January 10, 2012 at 3:50 am | Permalink


One Trackback

  1. [...] Since some of these folks were already making use of supports like shelters and soup kitchens, they must now elbow for a place at the table with the “new poor.” In rural communities, reports the Wasted Food blog, people are turning to “food auctions,” where they can buy groceries past their sell-by dates. As a commenter points out, these goods might have ended up as free food pantry items if there weren’t a market for off-price goods. The point is, the face of poverty is changing, and with it, the rules. No better example is there of this than a New York City condo, empty from fluctuations in the housing market, being opened to the homeless. [...]