Frequently purchased as a graduation gift, Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go!” is taunting us, its singsong meter and rhyme piling on. It is a book about itchy feet and the wide-open road. The coronavirus pandemic has made us pine for travel - the booking, the downloading of the boarding pass, even the in-flight snacks. We even miss the snacks.
Imperfect Foods, an online surplus-stock grocery delivery company operating in the West Coast, the Midwest and the Northeast aimed at eliminating food waste, can help with that. Last week it was offering JetBlue Airline cheese and snack trays, $2.99 for 3 ounces of mixed cheeses, dried cherries and crackers.
Its imperfection: It is excess inventory. But let’s be honest, it was never exactly memorable cheese or noteworthy crackers. It was there, like the trio of Sudoku games in the in-flight magazine, like the flight attendant’s seat belt demo: a diversion and bit of nurturance while flying at 30,000 feet.
Imperfect Foods Chief Executive Philip Behn says the cheese and snack trays were an early casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Almost two months ago, before it became a nationwide pandemic, this catering and airplane meal supplier said they saw a decline in economy and business-class seats,” he says. “This was one of our first COVID-19 food waste recovery opportunities. We could only take a fraction of what they had.”
Behn says they’ve sold 40,000 cheese and snack trays. He says there are hundreds of clients eager to find buyers for millions of pounds of food originally slated for restaurant, hotel or travel and leisure businesses. But frequently these foods are not desirable or packaged for retail consumers.
“We call that ‘breaking bulk,’” Behn says. “We have stepped up with co-packers to try to repackage some of those products - it’s hard work and it’s slow given the importance of food safety.”
Yet there are bright spots. Imperfect Foods is a budget-conscious company, so high-end products like pineapples are usually too expensive to offer their customers. Where do people eat pineapples? Hotels. And with hotels stalled, Imperfect Foods has been able to buy and offer them for a fair price. They have redistributed popcorn kernels previously destined for movie theaters and broccoli florets usually reserved for restaurants. Since the beginning of March, Imperfect Foods has doubled the volume of food it was previously buying, the JetBlue snacks among many.
Julianna Bryan, communications specialist for JetBlue, says the airline has had to dramatically reduce its in-flight food and beverage service to minimize contact between customers and crew members.
“We have temporarily suspended the sales of buy-onboard products including our EatUp Snack Boxes, EatUp Café fresh food items, beer, wine and liquor,” she says.
JetBlue has donated leftover inventory of snacks to Feeding America and other food banks, as well as hospitals. Bryan says that JetBlue has worked with its business partners to sell unused inventory, such as the cheese trays, at a heavily discounted price with the goal of moving it quickly and minimizing waste.
JetBlue is not the only airline to have to find new outlets for its in-flight overflow. Delta has had to unload its Biscoff cookies – and it serves 80 million to 85 million of these spiced shortbread favorites each year. At United, the Dutch stroopwafels have been piling up.
For decades, Southwest was known for serving those tiny packets of peanuts, but in 2018 it turned in its 106 million annual bags of nuts in favor of tiny pretzels. On longer flights it offers an array of salty and sweet snacks. (Fun fact: Taste buds are 30% less sensitive to sweetness and saltiness at high altitude, so foods get re-engineered for flights.)
In addition to selling some of their excess, airlines have put donation programs in place.
Southwest has donated more than $400,000 in snacks and other in-flight items to nonprofit organizations and nearly 13 tractor-trailers full of groceries to 15 food banks that are a part of the Feeding America network. Delta has donated 500,000 pounds of food around the world in the past six weeks. Front-line workers and hospitals get the Biscoff cookies along with coffee and other in-flight beverages, while other perishable food has gone to Feeding America’s partner agencies like Georgia Food & Resource Center and Missouri’s Carthage Crisis Center.
And United has donated 173,000 pounds of food to food banks and charities, pulling from airport lounges and catering kitchens. United volunteers have also processed more than 428,000 pounds of food and household goods for the Houston Food Bank.
Those stroopwafels? Pre-pandemic, United boarded more than 4.5 million stroops a month. Starting May 7, United customers craving them can get 15% off at Stroopwafels.com using the code FLYAWAY15.
For now, many Americans will have to satisfy their wanderlust by eating gooey caramel wafers while dreaming about the day, as Dr. Seuss would say: “You’ll be on your way up! You’ll be seeing great sights! You’ll join the highfliers who soar to high heights.”