Supermarkets around the nation throw out tons of edible food every day to comply with expiration rules. An entire “freegan” movement has sprung up in which people dumpster-dive behind these stores to rescue the most usable items. Here in NYC, an interesting discussion has arisen because Whole Foods fired an employee for theft after he set aside a garbage-destined tuna sandwich in order to eat it at the end of his shift. The case has made it to the state’s unemployment court.
Initially, New York State ruled that the tuna sandwich episode was misconduct, based on Whole Foods’ statement about the trash. In New York, as in other states, employers’ unemployment insurance rates are based on the amount of the benefits their former workers collect, giving them an incentive to limit the number of employees who receive unemployment. Mr. Reese challenged the ruling in January. “I knew what they said was wrong,” said Mr. Reese, who earned $11.50 an hour. His version of the story: He was throwing out 30 sandwiches at the end of the shift, and he put the tuna sandwich aside on the counter in plain view. When the supervisor confronted him about it, he said it was going to be thrown out and he was going to eat it. The supervisor then threw the sandwich out. Two days later, Mr. Reese was fired.
Was it really theft if the sandwich was meant for the garbage? Was it theft if the employee didn’t actually get to eat it? I understand that some employees would definitely abuse any system in which they were allowed to have expired items. But at least there has got to be a lawsuit-safe way for Whole Foods to get that expired-but-edible food to the homeless. Don’t some stores do this already?