I recently read the National Geographic’s article Waste Not, Want Not on how “ugly” fruit and vegetables can help solve world hunger. I’ll never forget a few years ago when I was doing a routine pick-up at a large scale local organic farm and the farmer showed me the mis-picks from one round of picking zucchini. The zucchini looked fine to me– free of scratches, the right length, and perfectly ripe. They all had a slight bend in them, however. Because they weren’t perfectly straight he was unable to sell them to his distributor. For all practical purposes, they held no economic value. He saved some for me, which the two of us started to call “Restaurant Grade.” Because I am literally chopping up the veggies, perfect shape and size don’t matter to me. What matters to me is that I prevent more of his food from rotting in the field. Additionally, I provide an alternative avenue to the standard of only being able to sell perfect produce. Just in that one day I was at the farm there was literally tons of organic zucchini that he left to rot in the field because it wasn’t worth paying his employees to pick.
Last week I taught at a neighboring college for a Food & Sustainable Systems class. I told the class it was up to them to creatively find a solution for this food waste problem. I’ve seen firsthand on numerous farms that farmers are losing out on large amount of revenue with their unsold “ugly” produce. Let me be clear– this produce isn’t half eaten by bugs of have large deformities. It is literally just not the perfect spec of size and shape. Perfect organic produce is rotting in fields because there is no efficient system in place to pay farmers enough to pay their workers to pick it. In addition to financial support to actually pick and pack the vegetables, there also needs to be a dynamic pick-up system developed to go to the farms directly and pick up this produce and direct it to shelters, markets, families in need, etc.
According to the National Geographic article, about 1/3 of the planet’s food goes to waste. This equals enough food to feed about 2 billion people. Other estimates include six billion of U.S. pounds of produce go unharvested or unsold, often for aesthetic reasons.
This critical problem of how to address world hunger often leads to conversations about GMO’s. The main sentenced coined with GMO is usually some version of “GMO’s feed the world.” In a time of always thinking of more and better, the food conversation of how to deal with the very serious problem of world hunger is not surprisingly coined on how to grow more food. Because our land is a fixed resource, GMO’s are brought into the conversation to build efficiency with a limited amount of land.
My experience in local food systems have implored a different stance altogether– what if we were just more efficient with the land we already have? What if we were more efficient with the produce that is already being grown?
Our current food distribution system is not set up to reflect optimizing food waste and we, as consumers aren’t conditioned to buy ugly produce. We go to grocery stores and expect the quality and standards in place– aesthetic produce. Whole Foods’ produce department resembles mecca in the pyramids of beautifully stacked and cleaned produce. The whole shopping experience is visually appealing in sterile conditions. From the extensive traveling abroad that I’ve done, I’ve never seen a produce experience that resembles an American big-box experience. The perfect shapes, ideal ripeness, and availability of just about any vegetable or fruit year-round has created an illusion that all of this happens in a “magical” type of way without repercussions.
The hidden cost of this food system, however, will hopefully not be hidden much longer. Not only are we wasting the food but also the valuable natural resources such as water, fertilizer, pesticides, fuel, and land to grow it.
Growing the 133 billion pounds of food that retailers and consumers discard in the United States annually slurps the equivalent of more than 70 times the amount of oil lost in the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, according to American Wasteland author Jonathan Bloom. These staggering numbers don’t even include the losses from farms, fishing vessels, and slaughterhouses. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, after China and the U.S.
Hopefully our next generation can find more creative ways to solve our problem of feeding more and more people in a more vulnerable climate. Until then, there are many things you can do to help this problem including:
- Get your local school to join the USDA Food Waste Challenge
- Store veggies correctly to ensure freshness
- Buy locally grown veggies directly from farmers whenever possible
- Participate in CSA shares whenever possible
- Give uneaten food a second chance. As much as you can freeze leftovers, make soup, and develop new recipes to resurrect produce
- Share portions at restaurant and tell servers to hold extras like bread and butter if you aren’t going to eat it
- Take home leftovers (and eat them!)
- Shop often. Work to eat down your fridge weekly
- Use smaller plates to eat, which helps to reduce portion. Avoid cafeteria trays if possible.
- Shop at stores/farmer’s market that offer misshapen foods at a discount. Offer to a farmer directly to purchase their Number 2’s at a discount
- Teach/educate youth and others on canning, freezing, and food storage practices
- Find a farmer to compost your food waste, or start your own compost bin
There are other ways to get involved too. My business, The Organic Gypsy, offers CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) for prepared foods. In these programs customers pay ahead of time for weeks of a specified food (fermented veggies, salads, soup). This enables me to plan exactly how many families I am feeding, assisting me to help my farmers by offering stable orders. Additionally, as a food service restaurant I waste very little food because I am able to plan for my food use. According to the Food Waste Alliance restaurants and food service establishments generated 33 lbs of food waste for every $1,000 of revenue. For a large company with a billion dollars of revenue, average food waste hit around 33 million lbs. Of the total waste generated, approximately 84% was thrown away.
The numbers are staggering. Thankfully there are many groups working worldwide and locally to assist the problem. As with any global problem, the solutions start in our own homes and communities. Do what you can to support sustainability in your corner of the world. Know that your small acts do make a difference for reducing food waste, supporting local farmers, and feeding your family with greater efficiency.