Waste Not, Want Not

If you've ever bought anything from Overstock.com, or a factory outlet mall, you already know and love the "seconds" business model. You're getting a bargain because you're buying items that were going to be tossed, for one reason or another. That doesn't mean they're bad. They're simply less popular styles or merchandise with cosmetic flaws virtually invisible to anyone who isn't a quality control inspector. Factory outlets thrive, in good times and bad, because most people love bargains.

Doug Rauch, the former CEO of Trader Joe's, decided to try this approach with "flawed" food by founding Daily Table, a non-profit grocery in Dorchester, Massachusetts. If you're offended that he might be selling inferior food to the economically distressed, relax. "Flawed" in this context has the same significance as it does in the factory outlet. It's either cosmetically imperfect or still nutritious and tasty but not a big seller. Or it's being tossed out as it nears its "sell by" date to make way on the shelves for fresher items more likely to give the customer flexibility about when to cook them. "Sell by" and "use by" dates are often arbitrary and food remains safe and nutritious long after those dates have passed. Anyone knows this who has cooked a three-week-old egg from the fridge, or broiled a great hamburger from a package of ground beef that has lost its artificially pink tint. Daily Table has built a supply chain of farmers, supermarkets, and distributors, all of whom want a channel for getting last-minute buyers for food that would otherwise settle into a landfill or compost bin.

As a mission for selling food, "use it or lose it" has proven to work. Daily Table offers nutritious and flavorful food at the lowest possible price, where people need that most, and it has the potential to drastically cut food waste. As NBC has reported: "Nearly a third of America's annual food supply -- 133 billion pounds -- goes uneaten. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that a family of four wastes closer to $1,500. Meanwhile, one in six people around the country struggles to find food."

The Daily Table is attempting to solve both problems with bananas for $.29 per pound and a dozen eggs for less than a dollar. The nonprofit flagship for what ought to become a national grocery chain is drawing droves of shoppers from within its lower-income Boston neighborhood. Mostly it's offering food that is approaching its "sell by" date within a short window of opportunity--limited time only for low prices--familiar to all shoppers. Or it's taking these ingredients from mainstream retailers and having its cook staff prepare take-out pre-prepared meals as other supermarkets, such as Wegmans and Publix, have done for years.

It's working. Customer love what they're getting, and, in the process, they're likely improving their diet. As is the case at Trader's Joe's, Rauch offers mostly whole and natural food, with as little processing as possible. More often than not, calories you bring home from Daily Table carry more vitamins, fiber and minerals than they do trans fats and chemicals. Rauch is proud of how this new store is not just cutting waste and cost, but promoting health as well.

"The other day we had blackberries that were 99 cents for a tub of blackberries. Beautiful blackberries," Rauch told NBC. "And a lady came in and said, 'I've never been able to afford blackberries in my life. I'm going to splurge.' Bought two or three of them. We've got cereal for 79 cents. Tuna for 50 cents a can. These are all items that can be staples that they're utilizing to build a healthier diet. So that's really encouraging."

To be affordable, efficient, and healthful: that's an invulnerable business model. The core mission is to do what's best for the buyer, in all respects. A striving to continuously improve the customer's well-being ought to reside at the heart of every American company's mission right now.

The Daily Table is a way of refusing to waste not just food but also creativity, compassion, entrepreneurship and energy--aiming all of those resources toward those in need. Too many have too little. America cannot be the nation of our dreams until phalanxes of good people take to the plight of the needy. Rausch shows us all how to show those less fortunate that more help is on the way. We need Daily Tables operating in every American city.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.