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Why does almost half of America’s food go to waste?

June 16, 2015 at 7:30 PM EDT
Roughly 40 percent of food produced in America never makes it to the table. Whether it rots in the field, is trashed at the supermarket, or thrown out at home, NPR’s Allison Aubrey looks at why good food is being discarded, and what can be done to prevent it.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, we launch an occasional series we are calling Food, Glorious food, reports about what we eat, how our food is grown, and the economics of putting a meal on the table.

Tonight, we begin with food waste. Much of what is grown on American farms never gets to market.

Allison Aubrey of National Public Radio has our report. This story is part of the NewsHour’s ongoing collaboration with NPR.

ALLISON AUBREY, NPR: In Salinas Valley, California it’s a symphony of sound, as the growing season gets under way. This fertile strip produces 70 percent of our leafy greens. It’s been dubbed the Salad Bowl of America. But not everything grown here makes it to our plates.

In fact, some of it never leaves Salinas. At a local solid waste dump, operations manager Cesar Zuniga watches as trucks roll in every day to dump produce destined for a nearby landfill.

CESAR ZUNIGA, Operations Manager, Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority: We got a whole load pretty much of loose organic lettuce. We have got some spinach towards the back. Looks like it’s perfectly fine, nothing wrong with it. We have got some kale here. We have got broccoli in the back as well. We have plenty of produce to make a salad here.

ALLISON AUBREY: The greens in this landfill are from local farms, and sometimes they end up here because something goes wrong during the packaging process.

Another reason perfectly good food gets wasted? Peter Lehner from the Natural Resources Defense Council explains.

PETER LEHNER, Natural Resources Defense Council: Right now, food that isn’t sold to your best buyer is often dumped in the landfill. The prices for fresh fruits and vegetables can go up and down quite a bit, and farmers may plant thinking they will get one price, but, by the time harvest comes around, there’s another price, and it’s not even worth it for them to get to the market.

ALLISON AUBREY: A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council says that as much as 40 percent of all the food produced in the United States never gets eaten.

PETER LEHNER: The idea that almost half of our food is wasted is crazy.

ALLISON AUBREY: That waste occurs at every point along the food chain. Some is lost in transport and during food processing. Supermarkets and we the consumers end up tossing out a lot too.

But what about what’s lost on the farm? An NRDC report found that anywhere from 1 percent to 30 percent of farmers’ crops don’t make it to market. We toured Ocean Mist Farms with Art Barrientos to find out why.

ART BARRIENTOS, Ocean Mist Farms: This cauliflower here, you see how it just has that yellow tinge to it? This is not marketable.

ALLISON AUBREY: Mm-hmm. Just because it’s — the color is a bit off?

ART BARRIENTOS: Because it’s yellow. This will not be packed.

ALLISON AUBREY: It’s got to be every bit as nutritious as the white cauliflower down here in the field. What’s wrong with it?

ART BARRIENTOS: There isn’t anything wrong with it. Let me cut a — grab that.

ALLISON AUBREY: OK. Yes.

It’s crunchy. It’s tasty. It tastes like any other cauliflower I have ever had. So, we just shopping with our eyeballs and forgetting about all about our taste buds?

ART BARRIENTOS: Absolutely. As consumers, we want white cauliflower. That’s what we expect from our grocer. As a result, it gets incorporated back into the ground. We won’t harvest it.

ALLISON AUBREY: So, what’s another issue that might ding something out of the marketplace?

ART BARRIENTOS: Size. Size is critical. This cauliflower here is just too big.

ALLISON AUBREY: So you have to meet these very specific size stipulations?

ART BARRIENTOS: Yes. And this — this is too big.

ALLISON AUBREY: It’s really kind of shocking to me.

ART BARRIENTOS: Well, yes, it can be.

ALLISON AUBREY: Size matters because retailers demand uniformity, when everything is stacked up nicely, it makes for better eye candy, like this perfectly sized cauliflower that is being wrapped up, destined for the produce aisle. The yellow rejects and heads deemed too big or too small are left behind in the field to be plowed under.

And if you think broccoli and cauliflower have a tough time making the grade, check out these peaches.

CHRIS HOLLAND, General Manager, HMC Farms: If you look at this peach, the fruit all the way around, there’s no blemishes to it. It’s got a red color with a yellow blush background. That’s going to go to our premium box, the high-end retailer. And this one right here, it has got green on it, so this will definitely go in a number two. We wouldn’t put this in a premium box.

ALLISON AUBREY: Wait. Back that up. Premium grade? Second? Wouldn’t you buy those seconds?

And the ones that don’t even rate as a one or two? Dumped into this truck.

CHRIS HOLLAND: This truck here is our final throwing out, going to the cattle feed.

ALLISON AUBREY: So think of everything it takes to grow these crops, the water, the fertilizer, the fuel to run the tractor. But, ultimately, if these crops don’t measure up to standards, they’re just plowed under here in the field and all that energy is wasted.

PETER LEHNER: Eighty percent of our water, 10 percent of our energy, 40 percent of our land is used to grow our food.

ALLISON AUBREY: And when it ends up in a landfill, Lehner says there’s another problem.

PETER LEHNER: Now food is the largest material in our landfills. Of all the things that are in our dumps, the biggest portion is food. And when it rots in a landfill, it emits methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas, 30 or 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

ALLISON AUBREY: But there are some solutions on the horizon. Ocean Mist and HMC Farms donate some of their less-than-perfect produce to the California food banks. Last year, Ocean Mist sent nearly 400,000 pounds of broccoli and cauliflower.

And some of it ends up here at this warehouse in San Francisco. It can store seven square miles of produce.

Paul Ash oversees the operation. He says, in the last decade, the California Association of Food Banks has doubled the amount of produce it distributes.

PAUL ASH, California Association of Food Banks: This year, we hope to grow the California Farm to Family program by over 70 million pounds. And part of that will mean more produce for California food banks. But we hope part of it also means that we are going to be able to push this eastward to other food banks.

ALLISON AUBREY: The food bank’s Farm to Family program has tried to recruit more growers who pack in the field to do what Ocean Mist does. They separate out the seconds and pack it in these black crates headed for the food bank. The premium heads get packed in the Ocean Mist boxes headed for retailers.

It’s a simple process, but only three out of 25 broccoli and cauliflower growers in the state participate.

Harold McClarty of HMC Farms says he’d like to donate more of his peaches to the food banks, but:

HAROLD MCCLARTY, Owner, HMC Farms: Getting it into the hands of someone to eat it isn’t free. There’s got to be an economic incentive to move more of this into an avenue that food banks could take advantage of. It’s a lot easier and cheaper just to basically throw it away.

ALLISON AUBREY: The state of California does offer farmers tax credits to donate produce, but Ash says the food banks are lobbying for bigger deductions. There are only six other states besides California that give tax breaks to growers for donating food.

PAUL ASH: Fifty million Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from. We, meanwhile, are wasting this — all this food. If we cut our food waste even by a third, there would be enough food for all those people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from to be fully fed.

ALLISON AUBREY: As food banks work to expand their programs, some entrepreneurs say there are so many seconds to go around, they see a whole new business model, much like what a French supermarket did last year.

NARRATOR: So, we launched Les Fruits & Legumes Moches starring the grotesque apple, the ridiculous potato.

ALLISON AUBREY: And it worked.

NARRATOR: Our new kind of fruits and vegetables were an immediate success. We faced only one problem, being sold out.

ALLISON AUBREY: Here in the U.S., entrepreneur Ben Simon and two partners are betting they can turn Americans on to less-than-perfect produce.

BEN SIMON, Imperfect: We’re working right now hard to launch a venture called Imperfect.

So, you get a box of seasonal ugly produce delivered to your door every week. And because this produce looks a little funky on the outside, you get it for 30 to 50 percent less.

ALLISON AUBREY: Imperfect plans to start delivery in the San Francisco area some time this summer, and they have just signed a deal with a high-end grocery chain called Raley’s, which has more than 100 stores in California and Nevada.

Here’s Raley’s Megan Burritt:

MEGAN BURRITT, Raley’s: When they’re picking up that apple, we need to somehow tell them that story, whether it’s you know, these are the underdog apples, who doesn’t love an underdog story, or something like that.

ALLISON AUBREY: Will Americans embrace these misfits as easily as the Europeans have? Raley’s is betting they will.

And back in Salinas, Cesar Zuniga is anticipating traffic will pick up as the growing season hits full swing.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Allison Aubrey of NPR News in Salinas Valley.

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