By early afternoon, the Salvation Army’s “social grocery store” is filling up. The mostly female clientele arrives with fistfuls of bags and trolleys, unwrapping scarves that had cut a bracing wind.
Volunteers have freshly stocked the shelves with gleaming rows of canned vegetables and pasta. A small refrigerated section carries yoghurt, milk and meat, just shy of their sell-by dates.
For the hundred or so families who shop here — paying only a small “social contribution” for their purchases — the Salvation Army store is a buffer against hunger.
“I especially come here for the meat,” said Zina Tigrine a single mother of two, who arrived with a friend. “It’s a precious help when you’re really in need.”
Until now the store, located just across the Paris city limits, has relied on voluntary donations from two city supermarkets. But under a new law, those donations are now mandatory.
Mandating food donations
Legislation passed last month makes France the world’s first country to ban supermarket waste and compel large retailers to donate unsold food — or face a $4,000 fine.
“The situation is very simple,” said Arash Derambarsh, a municipal councilor in the Paris suburb of Courbevoie, who launched a grassroots petition for parliament to adopt the law. “On the one hand, we have supermarkets that throw away kilos of unsold food every day. On the other, faced with this absurdity, we have millions of poor people in France.”
Derambarsh is no stranger to living on the edge. As a student, he struggled to make ends meet, spending half of his small income on rent.
“I was hungry and ashamed of admitting it,” he wrote in his book, Manifesto Against Waste. “I wanted to turn it into a positive experience so others would not end up in this situation.”
Last year, he began collecting food from his local supermarket with friends and volunteers and handing it out to the homeless. They launched a petition for the food waste law that took on legs.
Food waste in France
The new legislation fits into a broader rethink of consumption practices in France, where roughly seven million tons of food — about one fifth of the amount bought — is thrown away each year. While consumers are the biggest culprits, restaurants and stores account for about one-quarter of the refuse.
As of this year, restaurants are encouraged to offer “les doggy bags” to diners, a standard practice in the U.S. that remains a novelty here. Those generating large amounts of waste are legally obligated to recycle it.
The drive to cut consumption is echoed elsewhere in Europe. Indeed, until recently, France was considered to be a laggard. In Denmark, a new “waste” supermarket is drawing crowds who snap up surplus food at discount prices.
Derambarsh is now campaigning for the European Union to adopt a similar supermarket waste law, and appealing to the U.S. and other countries to follow suite.
“This is a long road, but we are going to end up being more human,” he said.
Reactions of charities
Yet the reaction among some charities and supermarkets in France points to the complexity of tackling food waste.
For some, the legislation amounts to a much-needed windfall.
“It will allow us to feed more people and provide a more diversified food basket,” says Louise Saint-Germain, president of a small NGO called Un Main Tendue Pour Demain (A Hand Stretched out For Tomorrow). “Every day you have more people out of work. This helps them manage their budget and deal with daily life."
But others are worried it will lead to more donations than they can handle.
“We simply don’t have the technical and logistical ability to distribute more food to more people,” said Aline Chassagnot, who manages the Salvation Army store. “And we’re not the only ones.”
More than a supermarket waste ban, the country needs to reconsider larger issues surrounding consumption and sharing, she said.
“Yes, there’s waste and there are enough poor people around,” Chassagnot said. “But really taking into account a person’s needs and dignity might mean another way of thinking that’s not so simple.”
Meanwhile, many large supermarkets argue the law only endorses existing practices. At a vast and gleaming Carrefour supermarket in western Paris, Director Soed Toumi points to carts of food piled high in a refrigerated room, awaiting their daily pickup. For years, the store has been donating unsold food to four local charities.
“We have a team that’s dedicated to sorting the merchandise from Monday to Saturday,” Toumi said. “The associations then come to take it.”
Nothing is wasted, she said. In the kitchen, chefs dip day-old croissants and pain au chocolat into syrup, then pour almond paste on them, turning them into new confections. Rotten raspberries are picked out of unsold tubs, with the good ones reused in tarts.
“We’re careful to buy in smaller quantities and we’re careful on how we manage the products on the shelves,” Toumi said.
Food that is damaged or past its shelf life is transformed into biofuel, she adds, powering supermarket trucks.
Still other French stores reportedly doused unsold food with bleach, rendering them inedible.
At the Salvation Army’s “social” market, shoppers welcomed the law.
“There are so many needy people,” said Elisabeth Bone, who lives on about $750 a month. “All the more reason to share, instead of throwing food away.”