It's time for the food supply chain to get ugly

It's time for the food supply chain to get ugly

ugly apples food waste
Bon Appétit
These apples were hit by hail storm early in their growth, causing superficial blemishes that may keep them off the shelves of retail stores.

By now you’ve probably heard the startling statistic that 40 percent of the food produced in America gets wasted. And you probably felt guilty when you tossed that limp lettuce you forgot about or that takeout that turned into a science experiment.

But the food waste problem isn’t just the fault of our collective poor refrigerator management.

Let’s start at the beginning of the supply chain: farms, where massive amounts of produce never make it into human or animal mouths.

This waste happens for a variety of reasons, but quite a lot of it results from stringent cosmetic standards and picky consumer preferences. I’m talking about the curly carrot, the beefy beet, the petite potato, the large leek and the scarred squash that are left in the field to rot or disked under or tossed later because they don’t meet supermarket beauty standards.

Americans have become so far removed from the origins of our food that it doesn’t occur to most people that apples are not always perfectly red and round or that lettuce doesn’t all grow the same size or shape.

Our fruits and vegetables are as unique as each and every one of us. Isn’t it about time we loved them for what makes them different, not the same?

Consumers can do this by supporting efforts such as the Ugly Fruit and Veg Campaign, which is trying to get large grocery stores around the world to offer wonky, imperfect produce for sale and encouraging consumers to celebrate instead of scorn these spotted apples or runty rutabagas. A recent NPR story even highlighted some endearing all-stars of the #UglyVeg movement.

However, the products getting wasted in massive quantities are the ones that never make it to the supermarket aisle. Because looks don’t matter when you’re slicing, dicing and sautéeing, there’s a huge opportunity for restaurant and food-service companies to fight farm-based food waste on a large scale.

This opportunity also poses a great challenge. Sadly, rescuing produce that’s currently being composted on-farm or tossed by processors isn’t as simple as saying, “We want these ugly vegetables and will pay for them; sell them to us!”

It requires building a new leg of the supply chain in each region to accept them.

Scaling ugliness

In May, the food service company I work for as its first waste specialist, Bon Appétit Management Company, launched a new program with the support of our parent company, Compass Group USA, to do just that.

We piloted the Imperfectly Delicious Produce program in California, then took it to Washington state and Pennsylvania, and are now rolling it out in Oregon and the D.C./Maryland area. It’s been a huge learning experience and a lot of fun.

We started with farmers. In California, we walked the fields and toured the processing facilities of both small and large growers, such as Church Brothers, to see where waste was happening, why and what we could do to rescue it.

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For example, the broccoli “fines” pictured to the left. While the heads of broccoli were being broken into retail-sized bags, these small florets were being thrown away — their only crime being that they were too small for the intended market:

I am pleased that we have found homes for this blameless broccoli in our kitchens. In fact, they recently were the star vegetable in a Chinese broccoli salad that one of our chefs at a corporate café in Portland, Ore., prepared for a Lunar New Year celebration.

Identifying items we could rescue through the program was just the first step.

We then had to work through packaging and delivery challenges — if the lettuce is all odd sizes, the heads won’t fit into the same containers — and partner with our distributors to find ways to communicate these often limited, time-sensitive purchases.

So we visited the produce middlemen, such as LA & SF Specialty and Charlie’s Produce in Seattle, to talk about how we might be able to adapt their existing ordering system to allow for limited, time-sensitive purchases of imperfect produce.

And we had to find a way to communicate those imperfections clearly to our chefs, so they would know what they were getting and could plan accordingly for how they would prepare it. Lastly, we had to encourage our chefs to be even more creative and flexible with incorporating this type of product into their menus.

That part turned out to be easy. When Executive Chef Craig Hetherington at the Seattle Art Museum’s TASTE Restaurant began buying Imperfectly Delicious Produce from farmer Tim Terpstra, of the 250-acre Ralph’s Greenhouse in Mt. Vernon, Wash., he was shocked at what he found.

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Many imperfections were hard to identify for the untrained eye, and the ones that were visible (such as odd-sized leeks) still tasted just as good as their prettier cousins. Before the Imperfectly Delicious Program began, Terpstra estimated about half of his harvest was going uneaten due to stringent cosmetic standards. Crazy, huh?

Still, building a new supply chain isn’t easy.

The Imperfectly Delicious Produce program is still very much a work in progress, but its early success is encouraging. Just within the first few months of our pilot in California last year, with only a few cafés and a few farms participating, we rescued more than 10,000 pounds of 31 varieties of fruits and vegetables.

I can hardly wait until we’re really bucking the food trend of “getting wasted” around the country this summer.