By Eli Wallace
Imagine you spend enormous quantities of time and resources making something. You do it well—so well that everyone you know eagerly waits for the things you make. You ship your things around the world. Far-flung friends and strangers want your product.
Would it surprise you, then, if 40 percent of what you made ended up in the trash?
Welcome to the modern agricultural system. “We put an enormous amount of resources into food, which is why minimizing food waste is so important,” says Hana Dansky of Boulder Food Rescue (BFR), a nonprofit devoted to placing perishables in hungry bellies. “Fifty percent of our land use and 80 percent of our freshwater resources go to agriculture. Then we throw 40 percent of it out, sometimes before it even reaches anyone’s home.”
BFR is currently working with the city of Boulder to audit food waste in the city, but Dansky sees food waste as a national, systemic problem more than a local one. She says, “A lot of it comes from the perception of abundance that we have in our country. It’s a perception of perfection. We’ll always have stacks and stacks of apples in every grocery store, no matter what season it is. Each apple not only has to have the perfect shape, but also be perfect: no bruises, no brown spots. Then the produce is expected to last for the longest amount of time once it’s bought.”
In the agricultural chain, the biggest wasters are actually farms, which recognize that imperfect produce won’t sell to grocery stores. Farmers compensate for their losses by overproducing food and leaving the unsellable, ugly fruits and vegetables on the ground.
Then there are the shipping losses. A truckload of perfect avocados may leave the farm, but by the time it travels across the country, many of the fruits end up nicked, bruised or overripe. Those will be culled from the group; then buyers will carefully scrutinize the ones that make it to the store shelf. “At grocery stores, they have to overstock. They cull the produce three times per day and throw out good food that isn’t pretty enough,” Dansky explains. “Stores always keep things overstocked, because people are more likely to buy something if there’s more of it on the shelf, rather than if there’s only one or two items left.”
Even if they make it to your fridge, perishables may not make it to your mouth. A 2015 study by the American Chemistry Council reported that the average American dumps $640 worth of food per year (the U.S. government estimates the cost per household per year to be around $900). And sell-by dates encourage people to toss what’s often still perfectly good—especially when it comes to eggs, dairy products and meats.
If the waste of resources and money isn’t enough, there’s also pollution. As food decomposes in landfills (35 million tons in 2012, according to the Environmental Protection Agency), it creates methane, a greenhouse gas. And that adds up to trouble.
So what can we do to ameliorate a system that leaves people hungry, food uneaten, resources wasted, money lost, and global climate change accelerating? Enter “Inglorious Foods.”
In 2014, the European Year Against Food Waste was in full swing. Intermarché, France’s third-largest grocery chain, launched a campaign called “les fruits et légumes moches,” or in English, inglorious fruits and vegetables. The grocery bought lumpy lemons, bruised apples, deformed carrots and gnarly potatoes, and sold them in stores for 30 percent of the price of their -picture-perfect counterparts.
In addition to the produce, stores sold fruit juices and vegetable soups made from inglorious produce to show consumers that these products tasted as beautiful on the inside as their ingredients were ugly on the outside.
The result? Sold-out stores, a rush of media attention, and according to the retailer, an average of 1.2 tons of ugly produce sold per store in the first two days. Some U.S. grocers have followed suit, including the new nonprofit discount retailer The Daily Table in Dorchester, Mass., founded by Doug Rauch.
The former president of Trader Joe’s, Rauch cited the food waste he saw at that chain and the country’s incredible amount of food insecurity—meaning you’re not sure when or where your next meal will come—as motivators for creating the store. BFR’s Dansky cites figures that show one out of six adults and one out of five children in America are food insecure.
“While homelessness is an issue in Boulder, there’s much more to it than that,” Dansky says. “I’m talking families with young kids who have more mouths than they can feed and are living in a cycle of poverty. The flip side is the senior population, which is complicated by mobility issues and a lack of income.”
Ways to Pitch In
Unless you’re the owner of a national grocery store, it’s hard to know how individuals can reduce food waste in meaningful ways.
“The first step is awareness,” Dansky says. “Awareness had to grow in Europe before the grocery stores responded.” That can mean posting on social media or asking grocery stores that don’t work with food redistributors about their food waste.
According to Dansky, Safeway, King Soopers and Trader Joe’s do not work with BFR to redistribute last-minute perishable items. However, Safeway donates nonperishables locally through food banks like Louisville’s Community Food Share (CFS). King Soopers confirmed that it supplies items to Boulder’s Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA) and recently instituted a company-wide composting program. Whole Foods, which works with BFR, also repurposes bruised produce in its prepared-foods section—as juices and salads, for example. Trader Joe’s declined to comment.
Individuals can donate extra food, including excess garden produce, to food pantries or call BFR at 720-445-5237 for assistance. Dansky also recommends visiting www.lovefoodhatewaste.com for storage tips, last-minute recipes and planning ideas to reduce personal food waste.
Finally, volunteering with food pantries and redistribution organizations like BFR, EFAA and CFS is a hands-on way to tackle food waste. Assisting them financially is also a huge boon to getting nutrients into hungry mouths.
So perhaps it’s time to get over our perception of perfection and start welcoming ugly food to the table. Our wallets, climate and communities will be fuller and better for it.