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Denmark's New Grocer Is Selling Expired Food, And It's A Hit

A shopper's cart at WeFood. The supermarket sells items once destined for the trash bin at a discount.

Denmark is once again distinguishing itself in the race against food waste — this time, with a supermarket hawking items once destined for the trash bin.

Those items might include treats for a holiday that happened last week, a ripped box of cornflakes, plain white rice mislabeled as basmati, or anything nearing its expiration date. In other words, perfectly edible items that are nonetheless considered unfit for sale by the retailers and manufacturers who donate them.

WeFood is not the first grocer in Europe to sell surplus food. But unlike so-called "social supermarkets" – stores which serve almost exclusively low-income people — WeFood's offerings are very intentionally aimed at the general public.

"If you call it a 'social supermarket,' it's difficult to get customers to go there. Who wants to be poor?" explains Per Bjerre with DanChurchAid, the charity behind this initiative. "If you want to stop [the] waste of food, everybody has to be into it."

And, apparently, everybody is. Or at least, everybody who has been lining the sidewalks each day since WeFood opened its doors on Feb. 22. Bjerre says some of these surplus food die-hards are low-income people looking for a deal. But mostly, he says, they're here for more political reasons.

Food waste has become a Danish cause célèbre of late (a Danish princess graced WeFood's grand opening). Over a recent five-year period, Danes managed to reduce the amount of food landing in the garbage by 25 percent (a reduction of roughly 35 pounds per person per year).

WeFood's open-to-everyone policy is similar to that of Daily Table, another surplus food retailer, which launched last year in Boston. Both are nonprofits, but while Daily Table's sales cover operational costs, WeFood is run by volunteers with profits used to support anti-poverty initiatives in other parts of the world.

But both grocers represent a carrot-based approach to the food waste problem when compared with a new (and potentially more far-reaching) initiative in France, where the stick takes the lead. A law passed in February prohibits French supermarkets from destroying unsold food. It also requires the country's biggest chains to donate surplus food to charity or give it to farms as animal feed or compost. Scofflaws face hefty fines.

The head of Denmark's Stop Wasting Food organization, Selina Juul, applauds her French counterpart, municipal councilor Arash Derambarsh, who persuaded French minister to take up the food waste measure. But Juul says that when Derambarsh approached her about introducing a similar measure in Denmark, or on the level of the European Union, she hesitated.

Juul says she's wary of government mandates like the French one: In her view, such laws could end up simply shifting the Western world's throw-away habit from one place to another. For example, she says it's unlikely that Denmark's 6,000 homeless people could stomach the 163,000 tons of food that Danish supermarkets throw out each year, so welfare organizations would have to deal with the leftovers.

She also wonders who would cover the cost of transportation. As Per Bjerre has quickly learned, basic logistics are one of the biggest barriers between a wilting head of lettuce and a willing mouth; and WeFood's instant popularity has the store running out of inventory on an almost daily basis.

"We are trying to get some emergency deliveries to the store, but right now, we have empty shelves," says Per Bjerre.

Bjerre says there is definitely no lack of surplus food to be had: "I've been around myself this week, visiting some stores. And even one tiny bakery — it's throwing so much away every day that it's kind of unbelievable. So if you add all that up, that's a lot of food."

The challenge lies in finding out exactly where that food is, when it's available and then getting volunteers out to pick it up. Bjerre says he expects that will get easier as WeFood has been open long enough to establish relationships and delivery patterns with local retailers. And if all goes well, he says, Danes can expect to see more WeFood stores opening around the country in the not-so-distant future.

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