Thursday, June 20, 2013

Left Out: How much of the fresh produce that we grow never makes it off the farm?

At a time when over 50 million people are food insecure and we face an obesity crisis, it’s a shame that 40% of food is never eaten. A closer look shows us that Americans are tossing 52% of the nation’s nutritious fruits and vegetables– wasting produce, more than any other type of food product, including seafood, meat, grains and dairy, at nearly every level across the supply chain.  

Some of this massive produce loss is happening well before it reaches retailers, as perfectly edible produce is literally being left on the field or sent to the landfill. And many of these good fruits and vegetables are never even harvested.  A new report commissioned by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) investigates losses at the farm level.
If just 5 percent of the U.S. broccoli production is not harvested, over 90 million pounds of broccoli go uneaten.  That would be enough to feed every child that participates in the National School Lunch Program over 11 4-ounce servings of broccoli.
What is causing so much produce to be lost on farms?
Before you scoff at this, know that we are all to blame.  In our search for the perfectly round, perfectly colored, perfectly sized peach, we as consumers ultimately drive much of this waste.  As explained by farmer and author David Masumoto, “If we picked our friends the way we selectively picked and culled our produce, we'd be very lonely.”
Our finicky preference for perfect-looking produce not only forces some fruit and vegetables to be voted off the marketplace, it drives down the price of even slightly misshapen, smaller, or scarred fruit.

A peach grower once told me that for eight out of ten of the fruit he can’t sell, “you wouldn’t even be able to tell me what’s wrong with it.”  Yet they are considered lower “grade,” lower grades mean lower prices, and low prices are another cause of shrink. 
Even if that’s not required contractually, growers are compelled to ensure they meet large orders for fear they will otherwise lose their biggest customers.  Therefore, they do exactly what anyone in their right mind with a riskier-than-average business would do—they plant a little extra for insurance.  One grower estimated overplanting about 10 percent on a regular basis.  Of course, when harvest time comes, he /she tries to find other markets for the surplus, so it may not go to waste.  In aggregate, however, this adds to the overall supply in the marketplace, thus driving prices down and potentially leading again to those walk-by’s. 
A farmer might also be forced to abandon a field or entire crop because he/she simply can’t find enough workers to harvest it.  Labor shortages are an increasing problem for farmers, as was demonstrated this year when in Washington apple growers estimated losing upwards of 25% of their harvest due to lack of skilled labor.
What can we do about this?
Farmers are juggling a myriad of variables from weather to plants to markets and beyond.  A little margin of error is certainly expected.  At the same time, from a societal perspective, there is perfectly good, nutritious food out there that is not making it to people who could really benefit from it.  Though the problem is occurring at the farm, we all have a part in solving it.
Consumers, let’s all be a little more forgiving in the grocery store (and restaurants for that matter).  As David Masumoto beautifully described, “Real foods carry with them the memory of real life. No two peaches are, nor should they be, exactly alike.”

Businesses, you too can be more forgiving in acknowledging the challenges of farming and allowing for the occasional short volume.  Why not give your customers a try and see if they might be interested in purchasing a bag of scarred peaches?  There may even be opportunity for the creative entrepreneur in scooping up some of that extra produce and creating new products or markets for it.
Policy-makers, this could be a real opportunity to get more healthy food to people. The NRDC report about food waste, gives a comprehensive look into how many fruits and vegetables are actually going to waste and why.  At the beginning of this year, California started giving a 10% tax credit to farmers for their food donations.  States like Colorado and Arizona offer similar benefits.  A federal legislation covering more states and more products could further help incentivize donations.   
Gleaners and food rescue organizations, keep it up!  You are doing a service to all of us, and often with mere crumbs of a budget.  We should all be throwing more moral, financial, and volunteer support your way.  And we should all consider this a problem that we can help solve.