Our high standards for food are causing an awful lot of waste

  • An ad for Imperfect Produce, a San Francisco-based firm that sells vegetables and fruit which don't meet grocery stores' aesthetic standards. Courtesy—Imperfect Produce

Monitor staff
Published: 7/19/2016 3:04:44 AM

Many years ago, when solar panels were novel, I reported on the unveiling of the state’s biggest solar array at Stonybrook Farm in Londonderry (it has been surpassed in size many times since).

At the microphone, then-CEO Gary Hirshberg touted the environmental benefit of the array, but later as we talked he acknowledged that the benefits were dwarfed by electricity savings the company had seen from improvements in the refrigerated warehouse.

Why all the solar-power hoopla? Simple, he said: “You wouldn’t come and do a story if we showed off extra insulation.”

That’s not an exact quote – it was a long time ago! – but it’s pretty close, and the sentiment is quite true. The sexiness of a solution doesn’t always reflect its effectiveness.

Consider a much different topic: Food.

There’s a great need to improve food production as the world prepares to add the equivalent of two more Chinas before the population stabilizes later this century, and as climate change complicates growing patterns.

Reporting about possible food solutions fixates on drone-assisted agriculture, or genetically modified crops, or robotic tractors. But efficiency, in the sense of wasting less, could accomplish at least as much.

You and I could help by buying more produce that’s funny-looking or imperfect, because consumers’ rejection of so-called “ugly food” means farmers cull an awful lot of their crop. The Guardian, a British newspaper, estimated in a recent series called “From Field to Fork” that half of the food grown in America for people is tossed out or fed to animals, partly because we demand perfect appearance in the grocery aisle.

“The farmers that we’re buying from, we make it a point that it has to be delivered here in great shape,” said Greg Lessard, director of development at the Concord Food Cooperative. “If you have a bruised apple beside a plain apple, that bruised apple is going to sit there and it ends up being waste anyway.”

And, remember this is the Co-op, whose shoppers are presumably more open-minded toward “natural” looking fruits and vegetables.

I’ve run into this issue at work, where some colleagues (you know who you are) recoil whenever I eat a banana that isn’t 100 percent unblemished yellow.

Punam Anand Keller, a professor of management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, is writing articles about this issue for Huffington Post as part of a series on food waste.

She notes that the problem is worsened by the modern market, in which we expect to see foods from all over the world. The result, she wrote, is that “foods in the U.S. are handled an average of 33 times before ever being touched by a consumer” – and each of those times introduces the possibility of causing a bruise that means the food will be discarded.

What can be done about this?

One small answer are programs such as NH Gleans, which go into fields and collect food unharvested – that’s what “glean” means – because it doesn’t meet consumer standards, then uses it to feed charities. That’s a Band-Aid, not a solution.

Maybe marketing could help.

“I think the ugly fruit should be called oddball fruit – like something that’s oversized, like a huge gigantic zucchini, or a conjoined carrot,” said Jay Sjostrom, produce manager at the Co-op.

Sjostrom noted that a company called Oddball Organics rolled out “oddball potatoes” last year, marketed as a sort of specialty product, but he said it has fizzled due to shortage of consumer acceptance. A startup called Imperfect Produce that delivers “ugly” veggies and fruit on demand – located in San Francisco (where else?) – is trying this approach, too.

One hopeful trend is the growth of farmers markets, CSAs and home gardening, which I like to think can help bridge the understanding gap between crop and consumer. Certainly the Brooks garden’s carrots and peas and leafy greens look imperfect (to put it mildly) but taste fine, and I’m trying to keep that lesson with me when I shop.

With seven billion mouths to feed around the world and at least two billion more coming, that doesn’t seem too high a burden to bear.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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