John Davidson has been working at the Real Canadian Superstore for over 35 years, so he knows quite well that a lot of food gets thrown away each day when it fails to sell.
It's a massive waste with huge societal costs: research shows that at the retail level, as much as 1.31 metric tonnes of potentially edible food, valued at $5.7 billion, is thrown away each year. More than 60 per cent of the food Canadians throw away could have been eaten, and it ends up in landfills, where it produces greenhouse gases that hasten global warming and climate change.
"It's a huge problem," said Davidson, who manages the St. Anne's location of the grocery and retail store. But the chain, owned by Loblaw Companies Ltd., has adopted a simple solution to help Monday's bread avoid the trash can at its 10 Manitoban stores: an app called Flashfood was rolled out in July, offering users the chance to buy near-expiry goods at heavily discounted prices, and so far, the results have been anything but stale.
To date, Winnipeg stores have diverted as much as 139,000 pounds of food otherwise destined for the garbage to shoppers' fridges. And customers have saved $278,000 so far.
How does it work? Each morning, the departments at the store identify products that are still on shelves but whose best-before dates are creeping closer.
Then, the products are scanned and uploaded to a server and will pop up in each store on the app, where users buy them directly from their phones.
Certain products are sold at 50 per cent off, but others that aren't exactly selling like hotcakes could be yours at even steeper discounts.
The products are put in a fridge or on shelves near the customer service desk, Davidson says, and since they've already been paid for, it's as simple as showing your receipt to the desk and walking out.
So, if you're interested in a fresh whole tilapia that's best-before Oct. 9, you can have it for $2.93, down from $16.55 — an 82.3 per cent discount.
And Davidson says the program has been so successful it's been a tad shocking: it's often the case that every single item posted in the app is sold by the time the store's locked up for the night.
Of course, once customers buy the products, they need to use them in order for the app to have its intended food-waste reduction effect: According to the National Zero Waste Council, Canadian households throw away more than $1,100 worth of food each year on average, and nearly half of food waste occurs on the consumer level.
The council, which has run a national campaign called Love Food Hate Waste, aims to reduce food waste, and thus, greenhouse gas emissions.
It calls for a holistic approach to food-waste management strategy: the first segment of that strategy is prevention of food waste in the first place, followed by recovery of safe and nutritious food for people and scraps for animals, and recycling energy and nutrients from the remaining waste.
The strategy also calls for an overhaul of food labelling laws to alleviate confusion over best-before dates, which don't necessarily mean "don't use past this date."
That confusion contributes to the app's success: literal tonnes of still-edible food sits on shelves, days away from being thrown out even if it could still make for a fine dinner or snack.
But act fast, or someone else will snatch up that four-pack of Liberte Greek yogurt priced at 93 cents (best before Thursday, originally priced at $3.78).
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.