Dissecting Food Waste — Why Buying Ugly Won’t Solve the Problem

By Laura Edwards-Orr, Executive Director of Red Tomato.

“Don’t toss that bean!” Shouted a dear colleague from days of jobs past. “Why?” I wondered as I watched a coffee bean roll into a not-so-clean corner of the office kitchen floor. It was more than a caffeine addict advocating for the five second rule — my colleague Mark explained: “Someone worked really hard, under potentially not-so-great conditions, to get that coffee bean from the field to our floor.” Mark worked in El Salvador during the civil war and brought an intimate relationship with labor on farms in Latin America to his work in sustainable agriculture in the US. Years later, this anecdote together with a conversation with Red Tomato grower Jim Ward frames my personal understanding of food waste. Jim said, almost sadly: “People don’t think about the months it takes to get my tomatoes to market — all they see is the fruit — not the hard work of growing it.”

An employee at Ward’s Berry Farm inspects the tomato crop. (Red Tomato)

Food waste is a hot topic right now. From ‘ugly fruit’ in European supermarkets to The Daily Table here in Boston, the larger food community is working to address the fact that 1/3 of the food produced for human consumption gets lost or wasted across the globe every year. Funders and investors have taken note, and retailers are trying to seize the moment. It seems like we’re searching for a silver bullet — the right place to invest a small amount for huge impact. But with a system as incredibly complex as our global food system, I can’t help but assume any quest for a silver bullet will eventually fall flat. What we need are 10,000 little experiments that address waste at all scales — from personal to corporate accountability — and take into account the interdependence of each element of the system itself.

As for the coffee bean and I, it’s understandable that most of us relate to our food system through our personal relationships. If you buy direct from a farmer, or even grow your own food, you’re probably more likely to think twice before letting it go to waste. That makes sense. You worked a little harder to get that food. It’s evidence of a relationship and a connection to the person, family or land behind the final product. And, it probably tastes really good! That’s well and good. But what about food waste at a larger scale?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations notes that most losses in the fruit and vegetable sector are a result of specifications established by retailers that make a significant portion of edible produce unsellable cosmetically. Some consumers and retailers are looking for ways to correct this trend. At Red Tomato, a veteran food hub working with mid-size wholesale growers in the Northeast, we have customers who are interested in seizing the moment and marketing full lines of second grade “ugly” produce. However, our growers do everything in their power NOT to grow second grade product. They want and need the premium price for flawless ‘#1s’ — top grade product. In any given harvest there are a few off-spec items, or sometimes a lot, but the supply of second grade products, especially when your sourcing is limited to a specific region or network of growers, is erratic and impossible to predict.

What’s more, both consumers and wholesale buyers expect discount pricing on seconds. It’s not an illogical assumption. Selling product that otherwise would go to compost adds value to the farm at any price, right?

Wrong. The cost of harvesting the product, washing, cooling, grading, packaging (even standard produce boxes are surprisingly expensive!) and shipping the product does not change based on the cosmetic appearance of the produce. When #1 product is already being priced as competitively as possible, discounting the price by $2–3 for seconds can make the difference between a profitable item — and an item sold at a loss. It is ‘better’ for the farm to leave that product unpicked in the fields or even plow it under. What our vegetable growers most need are consistent, committed, markets for product and creative solutions for seconds when marketing them makes solid economic sense.

Food waste is an incredibly complex issue. We need systemic solutions, and lots of little experiments to get us there. Farmers need access to research so that they can produce the top quality products best adapted for their growing region. They need access to markets so that they can sell all their crops, #1s or #2s, at a dignified price. Farmers and buyers need access to one another so they can come to mutually satisfying solutions — developing supply chains that are built to endure externalities like weather conditions and market trends. Supply chains and food marketing need more transparency so people feel connected to the effort it takes to grow beautiful tomatoes or flavorful coffee beans. Retailers need outlets for products they cannot sell and hungry people need dignified access to high quality food.

What we don’t need is one single, shiny, silver bullet.

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