5 votes

The wasteful fate of a third of food

4 comments

  1. [3]
    NaraVara
    (edited )
    Link
    There was a long twitter thread from some food logistics person a while ago ranting about these services (which I can't find because social media is shit at helping you find anything you've seen...

    There are a growing number of initiatives like Oddbox and a mental exercise helps to explain why they exist. Imagine you’re in a supermarket, in front of the papaya stand. Two fruits capture your attention and they both look irresistible, but upon closer inspection you notice one has a weird lump that breaks its even skin. Although perfectly edible, it does look a bit freaky. Which one would you choose for tomorrow’s breakfast?

    There was a long twitter thread from some food logistics person a while ago ranting about these services (which I can't find because social media is shit at helping you find anything you've seen before) [edit: found it!]. Basically she said these "oddbox" type services are stupid and the modern food industry/grocery stores are actually extremely good at salvaging and repurposing ugly produce. The tomatoes that don't look good on a shelf get made into sauce or peeled and put into cans. The ugly eggplants get breaded and fried into eggplant parmesan. The fruits get made into pies and tarts. The produce that got damaged while on the shelf get cut up and sold as assorted fruit cups, pre-chopped onions, etc.

    So these services actually end up being pretty wasteful. Grocery stores have much better economies of scale at figuring out how to repurpose them and a strong economic incentive to figure out new ways to do it too. In fact, if anything their incentive is to be too willing to repurpose bad food, and some unscrupulous stores will do shady things like using moldy fruit for those mixed fruit cups.

    The idea to just get a random box of produce works out better if you join a CSA or farmshare without the conceit of giving orphaned pears a loving home or whatever. The Community Supported Agriculture model is basically a farmshare where people buy into a share of a local farmer's produce and the farmer sends each of them a box of whatever they've harvested that week. It's the same deal where you get a bunch fo random foods, but it's through some local farm instead of being cleared through a wholesaler middleman.

    As for the article's main point about food waste, I'd say the big culprit is probably just the absence of a food culture that's connected to how the food is produced. Back in the day people had much less variety in foods that were available to them, but they could do tons of things with the products they had and knew how to make it last. This is kind of what "home economics" was supposed to teach you, how to manage a pantry.

    We have a tendency to just treat food products as individual SKUs rather than part of the "lifecycle" of produce. Greek yogurt is a great example. Traditionally, yogurt was something people did when they had more milk than they could reasonably drink before it went bad. It was a strategy for making milk last and keeping it from going to waste so they would keep some fresh milk as milk and then reserve some part for making yogurt and cheese, which would keep longer and people would figure out all sorts of things to do with the byproducts to figure out how to make the most of what they have.

    But now people just know that "Greek yogurt is good for you" but since it's not part of the American food culture they have no conception of how it relates to milk. So we end up producing a ton of Greek yogurt, but there is no market for any of the other milk products and they go to waste.

    In other words, the waste is probably less a problem of people being choosy or lazy and more a problem of a faddish food culture that completely divorces the foods being eaten from how those foods are made. This is the real bonus of the "eat local" trend. Claims about carbon efficiency from reduced shipping distances were always dubious, but it was more about cultivating a sensitivity to things like seasonality and really understanding where the foods you eat come from, how they work, and how the environment affects them.

    4 votes
    1. [2]
      dubteedub
      Link Parent
      The article mentions that first world countries typically have more issues with food waste (i.e. food that is thrown out by the consumer uneaten), rather than food loss (food discarded between...

      Basically she said these "oddbox" type services are stupid and the modern food industry/grocery stores are actually extremely good at salvaging and repurposing ugly produce. The tomatoes that don't look good on a shelf get made into sauce or peeled and put into cans. The ugly eggplants get breaded and fried into eggplant parmesan. The fruits get made into pies and tarts. The produce that got damaged while on the shelf get cut up and sold as assorted fruit cups, pre-chopped onions, etc.

      The article mentions that first world countries typically have more issues with food waste (i.e. food that is thrown out by the consumer uneaten), rather than food loss (food discarded between harvesting and delivery to the consumer). The articles users the example of food loss with mangoes in Africa going to waste during prime season as they do not have the proper ability to refrigerate them.

      That being said, I would be very interested in any sources you have. I found this report from NRDC that says that:

      Business practices and cosmetic standards in the United
      States and other large markets can drive farm-level food
      waste in other countries, too. For instance, a study of
      export supply chains from Peru to North America and
      Europe found that, on average, cosmetic specifications
      resulted in approximately 10 percent of production
      going to waste for crops under review. In years when
      there was an oversupply of product in the global market,
      cosmetic specifications were tightened and waste was
      higher—as much as 60 percent, for example, in Peruvian
      yellow onions.

      If produce is neither sold nor donated, it is often
      turned back into the soil, diverted to livestock feed, or
      composted. For instance, the Minnesota study referenced
      earlier found an estimated 75 percent of imperfect—but
      otherwise wholesome—products were dealt with in these
      three ways. While it is more the exception than the rule,
      a small portion of unsold produce is sent to landfills.
      Still, between April and November every year, the Salinas
      Valley Solid Waste Authority, in the heart of California’s
      produce industry, sends between four and eight million
      pounds of fresh vegetables to landfills.

      https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-2017-report.pdf

      So that does still seem pretty significant to me. I am sure there are some grocers or other stores that repurpose much of their otherwise wasted food, but I highly doubt that is the norm.

      2 votes
      1. NaraVara
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        This can be a bit misleading. A lot of "cosmetic" standards are actually necessary to ensure shelf stability or surviving transit. Irregular shapes might not fit into containers and make them...

        For instance, a study of export supply chains from Peru to North America and Europe found that, on average, cosmetic specifications resulted in approximately 10 percent of production going to waste for crops under review.

        This can be a bit misleading. A lot of "cosmetic" standards are actually necessary to ensure shelf stability or surviving transit. Irregular shapes might not fit into containers and make them prone to being crushed or bruised, if the skin is broken is makes it more likely to mold or rot in transit, etc. It's hard to say how much is truly just cosmetic and how much is shipping and shelf stability considerations. They tighten standards when there is oversupply, but the culprit there seems to be oversupply moreso than the cosmetic standards. If you have the luxury of being choosy at the same price, of course you'll choose the nicer looking stuff. The stuff was going to be wasted anyway, so it's more about deciding which ones should go to waste at that point.

        Even the NRDC paper seems to imply the issue in grocery stores is again one of oversupply rather than being overly concerned with the prettiness of the produce:

        A survey of supermarket business leaders estimated
        that 10 percent of revenue is lost to spoilage, age dating, package damage, and markdowns, and that large national chains lose closer to 15 percent of revenue.
        .
        Part of the allure of supermarkets is that they carry a vast array of products at every hour of the day—usually between 15,000 and 60,000 items. While convenient, this bounty presents a challenge for forecasting and inventory management and inevitably leads to waste.
        .
        Furthermore, many retail stores operate under the assumption that customers buy more from brimming, fully stocked displays. This leads to overstocking and overhandling by both staff and customers and damages items on the bottom with the accumulated weight.
        Overstocked displays are a problem in store delis and seafood cases as well as in produce sections. By one account, 26 percent of whole fish are not sold, yet, they are steadily stocked because stores like how they look in display cases.

        That last paragraph does seem to be cosmetic, but it's not the cosmetics of any individual food so much as the cosmetics of wanting to have shelves that are always full.

        And the other big thing just seems to be impatience:

        As with produce, store managers often feel compelled to ensure these displays remain fresh and fully stocked. Rotisserie chickens, for instance, might be thrown away and replaced after four hours on display. One grocer estimated that his store threw away a full 50 percent of its rotisserie chickens, including many from the last batch of the day.

        So instead of making them to order, they prefer to have them available on the shelf and toss them if they don't sell. And, evidently, despite the fact that this means you're probably functionally paying for 2 rotisserie chickens each time you buy one, it still only costs like, $6. That seems insane to me. INSANE!

        Edit: I found the twitter thread and updated the first post with it.

        1 vote
  2. dubteedub
    Link
    I thought this was a very interesting in-depth piece on food loss and food waste and ways that different companies and organizations are working to combat it. I had my own experience with a...

    I thought this was a very interesting in-depth piece on food loss and food waste and ways that different companies and organizations are working to combat it.

    "The box arrived overnight and waits outside, just beyond the doorstep in a London cul-de-sac lined with blossoming trees. I took it inside with glee and placed it on the kitchen table, still none the wiser about its content. It would be fruit and veggies, for sure, but what exactly? Aubergine, perhaps? Clementines? Asparagus? It felt like foodie Christmas.

    Like many other home-delivery services, the content of Oddbox boxes remains a mystery for subscribers. But this London-based company has a twist: it delivers wonky produce that farmers would not be able to sell in our aesthetics-obsessed markets.

    There are a growing number of initiatives like Oddbox and a mental exercise helps to explain why they exist. Imagine you’re in a supermarket, in front of the papaya stand. Two fruits capture your attention and they both look irresistible, but upon closer inspection you notice one has a weird lump that breaks its even skin. Although perfectly edible, it does look a bit freaky. Which one would you choose for tomorrow’s breakfast?

    I had my own experience with a service like this a few years back called Hungry Harvest. My wife and I used the service for about a year and a half and enjoyed it a lot. We got a big box of various fruits and vegetables delivered to our door every week that was full of surplus food from local farms, or produce that was maybe a little ugly or just not perfect enough for grocery stores. The company also donated a box of produce to local food banks or other places for each box purchased, which was nice.

    It certainly made us try and work new produce into our diet we were not used to like beats or rutabega, which was fun, but could be a bit challenging when it came to meal planning.

    1 vote