A study published in the journal Manufacturing and Service Operations Management suggests that in most cities, a small increase in the number of grocery stores would result in less wasted food, a significant contributor to climate change.

“The more stores you have, the lower food waste is going to be,” said Elena Belavina, associate professor at the School of Hotel Administration in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, in a university press release. “Very small increases in store density can have a very high impact.”

Belavina built and calibrated a stylized two-echelon perishable-inventory model to capture grocery purchases and expiration dates at competing stores and households in a market. She incorporated data from the grocery industry, U.S. Census Bureau, and other academic studies.

She found that “higher density reduces food waste up to a threshold density; it leads to higher food waste beyond this threshold.” In Chicago, for example, Belavina found that adding just three or four markets within a 10-square-kilometer area (about four square miles) would reduce food waste by 6%–9%. This would have the added benefit of lowering consumers’ grocery bills by about 4%, she said.

Most big cities are well below their ideal density of grocery stores that would minimize food waste, the research determined. In Chicago, that would be about 200 markets within a 10-square-kilometer area—compared to 15 currently—but most of the benefit from reduced emissions would be achieved by about 50 stores. New York City, with its abundance of produce stands and neighborhood markets, comes closest to its ideal density.

Urban planners, city governments, and activists should pursue policies encouraging an optimal density of grocery stores based on each city’s population, said Belavina. Retailers’ sustainability plans should analyze how their store networks and supply chains contribute to food waste and emissions overall.

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