Friday, April 19, 2013

Don't Judge a Fruit by Its Color: Produce Standards and Food Waste in America - April 19th, 2013

Picture an idyllic family-run peach farm in rural Connecticut. There are rows upon rows stretching for acres with luscious and zingy Red Garnets, Washingtons, or Raritan Roses. I spent the summer after graduating from high school in the late '90s there, pruning, picking, and selling the fruit. People came from all over to pick their own or drive up to the small wooden hut where we sold any of our forty-two varieties of juicy peaches and sweet local blueberries next to homemade jams and our sticky honey. It was hard work, made harder by people's perception of the perfect peach. As much as we explained to customers that we only picked when the fruit was ripe, they would still frown on the occasional blemish or split pit.

Now, take a stroll through your local supermarket. What do you see but towers of oranges, bananas, broccoli -- a cornucopia of fresh produce. The supermarkets are never supposed to look depleted. Having shelves consistently fully stocked with flawless, standardized produce means there is an unnecessary amount of waste piling up outside our markets and in our fields, as farmers overproduce to keep up with the demand for the perfect produce. Even if I wanted to buy all these fruits and vegetables, workers in the markets would be restocking the shelves as I walked out the door.

It's no secret that we're a wasteful nation. According to Dana Gunders, in her paper for the National Resources Defense Council, 40 percent of food produced in America is thrown away.

Every step along the way in food production some food slips through the cracks and ends up in a landfill, through harvesting, transport, at the market and in the home. But a significant amount of the food that is grown never even makes it to the supermarket. Some of this waste is due to environmental factors and the risks involved with farming, other waste comes from a lack of labor to harvest or transport the produce. However, much of the waste can be attributed to culling the goods in order to meet high government-issued industry standards of size, color, weight, blemish level, and Brix (the measure for sugar content).

We can't only blame the government standards. As we get used to identical green beans and bruise-free apples, we become less involved with the realness of our food. It's hard for me to believe that a marginally undersized parsnip wouldn't be as delicious as the ones that are allowed into the supermarket. When I buy produce I mostly look for those in season and ripeness. Knowing that marks and spots can happen naturally reminds me that food was grown and not created in a lab. If I get it home and it looks slightly more offensive, I cut that bit out and move on.

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