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The new coupon-cutting: Apps that sell discounted food headed for the trash

Flashfood and Too Good to Go are helping consumers cope with high food prices

We, the Pizza manager Joe Manley gives Alexandra Turley, 26, of Eastern Market, her “surprise bag” on Sept. 16. Turley bought it through Too Good To Go, an app that aims to curtail food waste by connecting users with deeply discounted unsold food that would otherwise be thrown out. (Annys Shin/The Washington Post)
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When Susan Teaford thinks about food, she turns to an app on her cellphone to check out what’s nearing its best-by date at her nearby grocery store.

Herbed cheddar cheese for $5 instead of $10? At that price, why not try it, she said.

Chicken breast tenderloins, all natural, marked from $10.54 to $5.20? No problem, that can be stored in the freezer and eaten later.

But her favorite score so far with the Flashfood app — which gives users access to groceries nearing their best-by date and deeply discounted — has been a leg of lamb. Slashed from $29 to $16, it was a bargain she couldn’t resist. She dined on it with potatoes and some mint.

“I’m trying new stuff. I’m keeping it out of landfills, and I’m saving money, so what’s not to love,” said Teaford, a retired business analyst in systems and programming, who learned about the Flashfood app a few months ago at a Giant Food in Falls Church, Va., and downloaded it on the spot. Teaford, who recycles and drives an electric car, uses Flashfood because its mission aligns with her values, but has also saved $240 on groceries.

Flashfood, which has 2.5 million users, is one of a spate of new apps aimed at curtailing food waste by connecting people with grocery stores and restaurants with food that is unsold or close to its best-by date. With food costs rising more than 11 percent in August from a year earlier, some consumers are also turning to these apps to shrink their grocery bills.

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Chuck Waterhouse shops with the Flashfood app at a Food Lion outside of Wilmington, Del., and said he finds the best deals with meat “offered at terrific prices compared to what’s going on with inflation.”

A pack of bacon at $4.99 instead of $9.98, he said. Overall, he has saved $840 on groceries, according to the app.

“You always check the app late at night, in case you missed items added during the day,” Waterhouse said. “And you always check it in the morning because they add stuff in the morning. You have to make a plan to check it.”

Waterhouse, a biometric technician, travels locally for work and pulls out the app based on where he’s headed that day to hunt for the best food bargains. With a cooler packed in his car and some gel packs to keep his food chilled, he’s good to go. At home, he uses a vacuum sealer on the food to store it and then tosses it in the freezer until he wants to cook it.

“We took the discount food rack and put it on your phone,” said Josh Domingues, CEO of Flashfood, a Toronto-based company he founded in 2016, which says it has diverted nearly 50 million pounds of food from landfills and saved shoppers over $120 million through partnerships with more than 1,400 grocery stores in Canada and the United States.

Through the app, shoppers browse through images of pasta, yogurt, imitation crab meat and whatever else is closing in on its best-by date at participating grocery stores. The item’s original price is crossed out and the new price is listed along with its best-by date. Consumers add their products to their virtual cart, pay through the app and then pick them up at the store. All items are made available before their expiration date, and the average discount is over 50 percent off.

Around D.C., more than 18,000 Flashfood shoppers search for deals at participating grocery stores, including through a pilot program at a handful of Giant Food stores. The app kicked off in the area last fall, and the company announced its availability at more stores in August. So far, all of them are located in Northern Virginia, while the Maryland locations are clustered closer to Baltimore. Domingues has plans to expand.

Money recovered for retailers

Selling food through the apps can also help stores and restaurants recover some of the billions of dollars lost with food waste every year. Retailers contribute unsold and soon-to-be expired goods to food pantries and food banks, but many of the items they sell on the food waste apps aren’t suitable for donations because they’re perishable or just too small in size, such as six sandwiches, which could end up in the trash, said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, a nonprofit group focused on ending food loss and food waste.

We, the Pizza is among the 400 restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops in the D.C. area on Too Good To Go, another food waste app, selling surplus food in “surprise bags” for about one-third of its retail value. The app came to the D.C. region in March 2021 after launching in Copenhagen five years earlier. It’s now in 17 countries and has 3 million users in the United States.

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To reserve a surprise bag, Too Good To Go app users tap on their cellphones, pay for the food through the app and then pick up it up within a certain time frame. Costs for surprise bags generally range from $3.99 to $5.99.

The pizza chain We, the Pizza has offered surprise bags from its U Street location for over a month and at its Capitol Hill store as of Monday with more to follow, said Robert Earley, director of operations for the pizza chain.

Its surprise bags typically have three slices of pizza and an order of garlic knots — an $18 value for $5.99, he said. The company has also worked for the past few years with Food Rescue, another app-based group that moves food surpluses from local businesses to nearby nonprofit groups.

“Between the two, we don’t have food waste,” Earley said of the U Street and Capitol Hill locations.

District Taco has saved 5,890 meals from being wasted since May, when it launched on Too Good To Go, said Melanie Koch, director of marketing for the restaurant chain. Its surprise bags offer anything on the menu including burritos, tacos, salads and vegan options.

“If we did not offer the surprise bags, the food would have to be wasted, so we took the initiative to research how we could save those meals and help our community at the same time,” Koch said in an email.

Overall, D.C. consumers and businesses in the area have saved more than 130,000 surprise bags since the app launched just over a year ago, said Claire Oliverson, U.S. head of communications for Too Good To Go.

“I almost don’t even think of it as leftover food,” said Fox Pfund Pulliam, a graduate student studying geography at George Washington University who uses the Too Good to Go app regularly. “It seems like anything else you’d get.”

Kat Landers of Northeast D.C. said she has regularly shopped the discounted food racks inside grocery stores, so using the Too Good To Go app was a no-brainer for her. The 28-year-old said one of the best surprise bags she ever got was from a cafe where she spent about $4 and got a bag full of pastries.

“You get to try new food at a discounted rate and ensure that the food isn’t getting thrown out, which is a good feeling,” she said.

Buying food closer to its expiration date may also help prevent food waste at home because consumers know they need to eat it before it spoils, said Steve Hamilton, a professor of economics at California Polytechnic State University. But he questioned whether surprise bags were going to “move the needle on food waste.”

A lot of food waste is due to poor meal planning, he said. “You need to know what you’re getting.”

Households with food insecurity

Craig Gundersen, an economics professor at Baylor University, said the apps could help food-insecure people, and those on the margins, who can use them at grocery stores or to pick up discounted food at restaurants.

“The more ways we can get food to people, that frees up resources at food banks,” Gundersen said. “So that frees it up for other people.”

On Flashfood, 1 in 5 shoppers experience food insecurity, meaning they went without a meal in the past two weeks, according to a survey the company conducted in April.

“There are a lot of lower-income people benefiting from the ability to purchase food at a deep discount,” Gunders said. “I think in that sense the app can serve to address food insecurity simply by the pricing that it’s offering.”