OPED: Doing something about food waste

Shelbi Polk
The News & Observer (raleigh, N.c.)

Oddly shaped produce can make for a fun conversation. But most produce that doesn’t fit the public’s idea of normal ends up in a landfill. Some is never harvested at all.

Now some Triangle companies are trying to solve several issues with one delivery box.

Up to half of the fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S aren’t eaten, due to both appearance and demand. Growing, harvesting, shipping and selling food that will not be eaten costs us economic and environmental resources. Food in landfills releases methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. And 14.4 percent of North Carolinians are food insecure, meaning they aren’t always sure where their next meal is coming from.

It’s hard to blame any one party. Growers harvest food they can sell. Supermarkets stock food consumers will buy. Consumers buy what they know, and we expect perfectly round onions and proportional broccoli exactly when we want it.

“Picking something and not having a place to sell it is a great way to lose a lot of money,” said Jeff Bender of Bender Farms, a family operation of about 500 acres near the Virginia border. On smaller farms like Bender’s, unsold produce can be re-purposed as feed for animals or used to put nutrients back into the soil. On larger operations, that unsold produce is often little more than waste.

Lisa Johnson, a senior research scholar at N.C. State University, estimates that 42 percent of vegetables grown in North Carolina are left unharvested, as a result of constraints outside the control of growers.

FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2018 file photo, romaine lettuce sits on the shelves as a shopper walks through the produce area of an Albertsons market in Simi Valley, Calif.

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Farmers juggle customers and crops, grocery stores and distributors juggle customer demand and available supply, and none of it can be determined more than a few weeks in advance. All of these potential transactions can be thrown off by one season of especially hot or wet weather. “In the end, mother nature rules,” Bender said.

Courtney Bell became concerned about food waste in the Triangle as a student at Duke, where she learned about the different ways wasted produce is a drain on our environment and economy.

Bell spent the second half of her college career building Ungraded Produce, a company that buys unsold produce from farmers and distributors and sells it directly to consumers for a discount. Bell began in 2016, buying unsold produce from two farms and selling it directly to 15 customers, mostly fellow Duke students.

Ungraded Produce, which Bell now runs full time with the help of an operations manager, acquires ugly and excess produce from farms and distributors around the state. This gives farmers a reason to harvest unattractive or extra produce and rescues food that distributors or supermarkets would have thrown away.

Her team of around a dozen part-time employees inspects produce for quality but ignores aesthetic blemishes that might disqualify it for a distributor. Finally, they deliver cheaper produce directly to their customers’ doors. The delivery system, Bell said, makes her company especially important for people with mobility issues or those who don’t have access to transportation.

Bell estimates that Ungraded Produce has rescued about 139,000 pounds of produce in 2018. The company also donates a few pounds of produce for every box they sell, which Bell said adds up to another 64,000 pounds donated.

Bart Creasemen is the Triangle market manager for Hungry Harvest, a national company with a similar operating model. Hungry Harvest moved into the Triangle in January, and it has already rescued 215,000 pounds of produce and donated another 15,000 pounds to organizations fighting hunger.

Creasemen said that there are just a few distributors that are largely in control of what produce people can find in the grocery store. His team wants to give people more options and help consumers reintegrate themselves into the food production system. “If you see what we get that doesn’t make it to the grocery store, you’d be surprised,” Creaseman said.

The food rescued by Ungraded Produce and Hungry Harvest remains out of reach for one of the populations who might benefit from lower priced produce the most: people using food stamps. Retailers can only accept food stamps through an in-person interaction, forcing the nearly 1.6 million SNAP benefits recipients in NC to drive to grocery stores, when even major retailers like Walmart pushing customers to have their groceries delivered. Bell said that Ungraded Produce is working with community centers and churches to begin in-person interactions for her company.

Hungry Harvest and Unsold Produce keep us healthier by reducing greenhouse gases and fighting hunger, all the while creating jobs and fostering competition. As the population continues to grow, both in North Carolina and globally, we need to continue to move forward with food solutions that address gaps in both consumer understanding and industry efficiency.