Why Eating Ugly Produce Is Good For You...And The Planet

ugly_fruit.jpgHow much produce have you thrown out in the last week? Any carrot tops? Spoiled cucumbers? Soft and sprouted potatoes?

Or maybe you’re one of the proud composters out there. Either way (as we’ve reported before), food waste has huge economic, environmental and human-health impacts here in the U.S. and around the globe. It’s an issue that will continue to take center stage for years

It also provides some great opportunities for innovators in the non-profit and business sectors to cash in—in a good and responsible way.

Last week on ABC’s Shark Tank, entrepreneur Evan Lutz received a $100,000 investment from Robert Herjavec for a Hungry Harvest business model that sells produce “seconds” (those items that do not meet grocery store visual standards) at a reduced rate through a subscription-based service. Hungry Harvest hopes to help hunger causes AND prevent food waste. For a full recap of the Shark Tank transaction, check out Shana Lebowitz’s Business Insider article.  Maria Godoy of NPR explains:

[Hungry Harvest] relies on rescuing apples, pears, potatoes and other crops that might otherwise have ended up as food waste and selling them to its subscribers in Maryland, Washington D.C., and Virginia at a 20- to 30-percent discount. For every bag of produce it delivers, the company also donates a meal to the hungry.

Big deal? Or drop in the bucket? When we consider the rate of hunger in the U.S. (1 in 6 Americans is food insecure) and the stats on food waste (roughly 40 percent of all foods goes into the landfill), Hungry Harvest won’t make a huge difference, but it’s a sound and innovative model that could be replicated. 

Most efforts in food waste reduction to date have been through the nonprofit sector such as food-banks or food-pantries receiving “seconds.” Jordan Figueiredo of Civil Eats wrote a fabulous piece recently on these efforts. Figueiredo remarks that there are over 20 official programs that are taking seconds from farms and bringing them to food banks. Programs like Rotary First Harvest in Washington,  Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, and the  Michigan Agricultural Surplus System are all programs that, along with the others, save over 300 million pounds of produce a year.

And yet this is still hardly a dent in terms of national impact:

Most of the programs we spoke with said that they are not even recovering half of what is available in their areas. For example, the Texas Food Bank Network completed a study to see what is grown in Texas and what is rejected (and wasted) at the Mexico border. They found that a whopping 340 million pounds get left behind and wasted, says Sarah Sykes, who runs the Feeding Texans Program for the network.

Figueirido explains that one of the problems with the non-profit model is paying for labor to pick and pack the produce. A farmer whose margins are tight, despite having the best of intentions, might go bankrupt if they must pay salvage costs. There are certainly government programs that can be used for picking and packing costs and these are vital to making the nonprofit model work. Yet, there is a finite amount of money that governments are currently willing to allocate to this cause. 

That conundrum is exactly why Evan Hutz’s business venture on Shark Tank was such a big deal. Realistically, solving the food waste, hunger and environmental problems of our food system will rely on both nonprofit and for-profit ventures. Hungry Harvest is a great example of how we can sustainably work to end food waste.

There are also solutions at the Federal level, which we will need as well. If you are interested in seeing more done about food waste in the U.S. click here to read more from us  about House Rep. Chellie Pingree’s new food waste bill entitled the Food Recovery Act.

PHOTO: Ugly friut at Chelsea Market via Flickr


Read all stories by Damon Cory-Watson

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