The foolish pursuit of perfect food

Wasting Food, Managing Waste

by Jessica Ilyse Kurn

Wasting Food, Managing Waste

Colin Ruel

Admit it, at the store we all Goldilock our fruits and vegetables: too small, too bruised, not red enough— until finally one is just right. Beauty constraints like these, along with labor shortages and market fluctuations, give farmers reason to send misshapen plums and small apples to landfills, compost or let them rot in the field. Rummaging through bins of produce for an ideal tomato may not alone lead to much waste, but it’s the cumulative effect that worries scientists. Dana Gunders, a Food and Agriculture Project Scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says, “Collectively, by being choosy in the appearance of our produce, we are driving waste further upstream in the system.” The shunning of lightly bruised pears and slightly overripe melons eventually affects what farmers can and can’t sell at the market. Gunders gives an example of a peach farmer who says it would be difficult for a consumer to pinpoint what’s wrong with eight out of 10 peaches he can’t sell at the market. Sometimes it’s just that the peaches or apples are smaller than average, “which in my opinion makes for a perfect school lunch apple,” says Gunders.

Waste at the farm level can add up. According to the NRDC, if five percent of the broccoli crop in the U.S. were left on the field, 90 million pounds would go uneaten. That’s a lot of broccoli— enough to feed a serving to every child in the National School Lunch Program. And the problem isn’t just in the U.S. A new report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the U.K. found that between 30 and 50 percent of the food produced in the world never reaches a human plate.

Gunders warns that it’s easy to blame the farmer for leaving all of this produce unharvested—but that is shortsighted. In addition to producing cosmetically appealing crops, farmers come under a lot of other constraints. For one, labor isn’t cheap and it is in short supply. So if the going price for cucumbers is particularly low, it may cost too much to harvest and transport those fruits to market. This came to fruition this past fall when Washington State apple growers had a bumper crop but feared losing nearly 25 percent of it, due to a shortage of skilled labor. Farming is a risky business. Farmers are at the whim of the weather, and yields are a gamble. Accordingly they often plant extra to ensure something salable come harvest time. It’s estimated that bountiful fields lie unharvested 30 percent of the time.

Food waste translates into a lot of misspent resources. From farm to fork, there’s water, fertilizers, pesticides, land, fuel for machinery and transportation that are all for naught if the food is wasted. The NRDC reveals that getting food to our plates takes up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget. And, according to Tristram Stuart, food-waste campaigner and author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, the water used to irrigate all of the wasted food around the world would be enough to meet the needs of nine billion people—the anticipated 2050 global population. And if that’s not enough, food rotting in U.S. landfills leads to 25 percent of the country’s emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas methane.

All of this waste is troubling; especially at a time when resources are growing increasingly scarce and food insecurity is considerable. The most recent survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that nearly 18 million U.S. households were unable to put ample food on the table at some point during the past year. But a wave of change is slowly starting.

Solutions to farm-level waste range from local to global. The United Nations Environment Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization have teamed up to start a program called Think.Eat.Save. This program aims to ignite action on food waste issues around the world. The European Parliament recently enacted a plan to halve food waste by 2020. In the U.S., the California legislature is on top of the issue. Last year it imposed a ten percent tax credit to farmers who donate their leftovers. Closer to home, individuals can join a farm share, or CSA, which helps farmers circumvent market fluctuation pressures by sending consumers home with what’s available that day, ugly carrots and all.

Regardless of tax incentives, farmers all over the country donate their harvested crops or feed them to animals. But it’s the unpicked bounty left in the fields that’s so often squandered. That’s where gleaning organizations come in. They pick the food that would otherwise go to waste and take it to food banks and other charitable organizations.

On Martha’s Vineyard, workers with Island Grown Gleaning (IGG), an Island Grown Initiative program, trek to Island farms to harvest crops left behind. According to Jamie O’Gorman, Program Coordinator of IGG, the organization “distribute[s] the produce free of charge to low income Islanders, to elders, to our school cafeterias, and to organizations providing meals
and groceries to those in need.”

IGG’s work is important, says O’Gorman, because Martha’s Vineyard residents have among the lowest per capita income in the state, while the cost of living is estimated to be 85 percent higher than the rest of Massachusetts. She says, “One of the first things to disappear from tight budgets is produce—fruits and vegetables.” There are also access issues for senior citizens and disabled populations. But O’Gorman notes, “Nutritious, locally grown food should be enjoyed by folks from all walks of life and all income brackets.” For this reason and in order to curb food waste, IGG workers toil in fields all over Martha’s Vineyard. Last year they gleaned 23,000 pounds of food.

Perhaps Confucius, the fifth century philosopher, was thinking about small zucchinis and bruised squashes when he said, “Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.” So next time you find yourself browsing the grocery shelves, pick up that lonely, abnormal apple—most likely it will still burst with flavor and leave you doubly satisfied.