Food waste has been on my radar for a while now. If we’re going to talk about food, we need to talk about the tragic amount that never makes it to someone’s plate.
The recent announcement by the USDA and EPA to reduce American food waste by 50% by 2030 is definitely welcome. But the devil is always in the details – or lack thereof. This new goal for the United States is based on a 2014 report that’s broad in scope and, in terms of farm-level food waste, sorely lacking in concrete numbers:
“Food losses begin on the farm even before a commodity moves into the marketing system. Although ERS was not able to quantify food losses that occur on the farm or between the farm and retail levels, anecdotal evidence suggests that such losses can be significant for some commodities.”
If we’re currently relying on anecdotal evidence to understand the amount of waste occurring on farms, then we need to get as much first-person input as possible. We need to talk to lots of different farmers.
Ruth Blackwell is the owner and farmer of Mudcreek Farm in Victor, NY. Here’s what she had to say during a recent conversation:
Does food waste occur on your farm? What are the sources?
One of the reasons why I want to farm in the CSA model as opposed to selling at market is to drastically reduce food waste. I don’t have to worry about market conditions, since my members have already purchased their share ahead of time. The cost of a share is based more on variety and quality than specific vegetables’ market costs.
I do lose a small amount of veggies to quality standards… I have pretty high standards in terms of health of my vegetables. But I don’t have to adhere to the ridiculous standards your typical grocery store would employ. I’m right there to explain to members that a carrot with two legs tastes just as good as a carrot with one. And the things I do discard either go to feeding our pigs and poultry, or gets turned into compost. Nothing is really “waste”.
Labor shortage isn’t a problem on my scale. And food safety scares don’t affect me, since everything is clean, organic, and transparent to my members. Food safety scares might actually help my business: sketchy bagged spinach from California might chase those scared customers right to me.
The only thing I have to worry about is weather and disease, and that’s a real worry. Especially with climate change rearing its ugly head. This June it rained 26 days out of 30, and we had about 75-80% crop loss in all our spring brassicas; they were essentially sitting in standing water and the roots just rotted away. I then lost a lot of direct seeded things that were planted in May and June – onions, carrots, beets, parsnips, etc. – because I couldn’t cultivate the wet soil and they got lost in weeds. Other transplanted crops couldn’t get planted on schedule and were late or stunted as a result.
A CSA relies on pretty specific timing to work properly, so an entire month of not getting on the ground can really screw you. This spring has made me adjust my plans for the future; I’m going to buy some equipment and change my practices around (raised beds with plastic mulch) to try and help protect future crops from the ravages of another rain event like this June. Raised beds can drain more easily and plastic mulch suppresses weeds when I can’t hand weed or cultivate. But climate change brings more drastic, unpredictable weather, including too hot or too cold weather for specific crops; an increase of diseases like late blight earlier in the season than usual; late and early frosts, etc. It’s impossible to plan around, so it makes my business more risky, and also puts the burden on me to explain to my members why the shares aren’t what was promised.
Any general thoughts about this food waste discussion?
The main thing that really bothers me about the food waste problem is the unrealistic standards that are placed on food. Every zucchini, every tomato, every cucumber going to the store has to look “perfect” and results in copious amounts of perfectly edible food getting tossed, while millions of people are starving or living in “food deserts” where they can’t get fresh produce. It’s insane. The standards for what’s salable have way more to do with looks than taste. The tomatoes you get in the store look perfect and taste like cardboard. I don’t give a shit what it looks like. I’m eating it, not putting it up on the wall.
I’m not sure where these decisions get made, and I’m sure it’s a slow, collective slide into the insane, not one higher-up’s decision. But people have become completely ignorant about food. Priorities are completely skewed. And to me, it seems like the most obvious and easily corrected reason for food waste, because there’s no good reason for it. It’s just a marketing problem.
Being a CSA is a good way to combat this attitude; I introduce members to ugly heirloom tomatoes, strange eggplant, weird carrots that taste way better than anything they can get in the store. But my resources to address the problem are way smaller than Wegman’s or the FDA.