Supply and Demand: What Can We Do To Reduce Food Waste?

Ungraded Produce 15 lb. Fruit and Veggie Box ($25).

Ungraded Produce 15 lb. Fruit and Veggie Box ($25).

Forty percent of edible food in the United States goes to waste. This includes over fifty percent of all available produce. Even as someone who works in the culinary industry, this seems like a LOT of waste. Especially when we consider the amount of people who don't have enough to eat. But what is the root of this problem? Unfortunately, we, the consumers, are to blame. We only look for the most perfect fruit and vegetables at the grocery.

When purchasing from farmers, the corporate buyer has a standard level of quality and expects a certain amount of it. To ensure they can fulfill their contract, the farmer over plants the crop. When the time comes to harvest, the farmer may or may not be able to afford to cover all of the fields after the major buyer's purchase is satisfied, so the surplus may not get harvested at all. If they can afford the labor, they will certainly make efforts to sell their remaining stock, but unfortunately, much of the remaining produce is often turned over.

Hungry Harvest $35 Fruit and Veggie Box.

Hungry Harvest $35 Fruit and Veggie Box.

There are some new companies who are looking at making this "ugly" produce directly accessible to the public. What they really market is convenience while also scratching your itch to do the right thing. In the Triangle, we have several waste-diverting delivery options. Two that I have tried are Hungry Harvest and Ungraded Produce. Whoever you try, they all seem to work the same way: Sign up for a subscription to different size boxes of fruit, veggies, or both. Have them delivered straight to your door. Hungry Harvest works regionally, as they are headquartered in Maryland. Ungraded Produce was founded by Duke students and is headquartered in Durham. Their aim is to focus on local waste reduction. I would recommend them both to anyone.

At the supermarket, we are kind of culturally conditioned to pick the prettiest peach. And what happens to produce that is approaching its corporate dictated expiration point? It is still edible. But if no one buys it by a certain level of ripeness, these fruits and veggies are considered loss and discarded. The market wants to keep everything fresh. Understandably, there is a mission to avoid fruit flies and other pests, but is there really a risk of that just by giving a couple more days? There's nothing more frustrating than walking into the grocery and finding an entire shelf of green bananas. I've seen them cart away ripe bananas because they have brown spots. More times than I can count, I've taken bananas out of the removed-from-the-shelf cart by the armload to put in my freezer for smoothies and nice cream.

France actually passed a law making it a crime for grocery stores to dispose of edible food. They are bringing hefty fines to store managers who disobey and are encouraging markets to cooperate with charities. This is a huge step forward. In the United States, there are tax deductions for donations to shelters, but it seems that many stores and restaurants don't see the effort to be worth the time. It's quite sad. We should take more responsibility for our communities if we have the opportunity. It seems something is amiss when we are perfectly able to help others with very little effort and choose not to. Is the big business structure so rigid that is does not allow time for a few employees to take a few minutes to be caring members of the community while on the company clock?

A while back, I was reading an article on NPR about a couple who lived for six months on food that was considered inedible. They made a film about it: Just Eat It. This food that they primarily found in dumpsters was essentially never past the sell-by date, but only close to it. On that note, a sell-by date is not an expiration date. The only truly serious date on packaging that is strictly regulated is baby formula. Everything else is variable and not uniform across the board from company to company, state to state. We as consumers need to pay more mind to common sense and discretion, rather than arbitrary and subjective systems. A mushy spot on an apple doesn't mean the whole piece of fruit deserves to be tossed in a trash bin. At the very least, it should be a compost bin.

All of this is to say that our country wastes an unnecessary amount of sustenance. There is a huge obesity crisis because of how accessible processed convenience food is. I understand that giving away produce may seem, on paper, like it is reducing the value of a farmer's hard work. Someone does have to pay for it. And it wouldn't be fair to expect a grocery store to pay for an entire shipment of product that they don't think they can sell. How can we arrive at an amicable medium? We certainly have the means to feed our population healthy food, but distribution seems to be posing a problem.

One great and simple solution is to shop locally. Locally sourced food is superior in freshness, flavor, and nutrient value. Isn't that what we want for ourselves and our families? I believe it is. Most farmers markets offer a large variety of goods, all brought to you directly by local farmers and crafters. You can buy produce, meats, cheeses, breads, desserts, and snacks. Now, you're supporting your local economy and enjoying top quality meals. Yes, there is still waste going on at the neighborhood supermarkets, but this way, we aren't driving it.