Television special discusses food waste on farms

AFP Correspondent

NEW YORK — “The Big Waste,” a Food Network special which aired in mid-January, featured celebrity chefs with a mission.
The mission was to create a dinner for 100 people, and to do so entirely with food destined for the trash.
Finding food turned out to be simple. Considering the rising number of people who are relying on food pantries to feed themselves and their families, it is counterintuitive to think that food waste is rampant.
Yet, as the show discovered, it is an everyday occurrence throughout our food chain: From retail waste to the farm field, perfectly edible food is remitted to the trash, for a variety of reasons, the majority of which are not related to safety or sanitation.
Honey Brook Organic Farm, in Hopewell, and Donaldson Farms, in Mansfield Township, were two of the farm destinations the chefs chose to visit in order to collect food waste.
“Waste on the farm has always been a concern of ours, so we saw the special as an opportunity to educate our customers and the public about the magnitude of the problem,” Sherry Dudas, of Honey Brook Organic Farm, said. Honey Brook regularly donates produce to several food banks, and this produce was not considered for the program, she said. Yet even after excluding the large amounts of produce donated weekly from the farm, the waste destined for the compost pile left plenty of “ripe pickings” for the chefs.
Retail outlets — whether super-markets, small specialty stores or farm markets — generate a lot of waste.
Why? Because any product with even a small imperfection is deemed unworthy by the customer, who will not purchase it. Even a small cosmetic imperfection translates into a lost sale, and the item becomes a part of the waste stream.
Farmers know they are up against this superficial standard, and therefore oftentimes reject produce, diverting it before it hits retail outlets, simply leaving it in the field, or sending it to the compost pile.
“We’ve trained the American consumer to demand perfection,” Greg Donaldson, who farms and operates the retail farm market at Donaldson Farms, said on the program. Customers, he said, simply won’t buy blemished produce.
Dudas agrees that cosmetically imperfect produce is certain to be rejected. “This produce, if left in the bins in the market, will not be taken by customers because it does not meet their aesthetic standards.”
It’s a vicious cycle, with farmers having to meet the demand for cosmetic perfection, knowing that they can not sell their product and earn a living otherwise, while consumers are so accustomed to perfect-looking food that even those farmers who attempt to sell “seconds” are finding that customers scrutinize imperfections on product already being marketed as less than perfect, but certainly fresh and edible.
Another cause of good food being wasted occurs right in the fields. Even experienced harvesters can occasionally miss edible produce, Dudas said. But a bigger issue occurs in pick-your-own fields, where customers are not likely to understand proper harvesting techniques, to judge ripeness, or to access all areas of fields open for picking.
Sometimes, the weather works against the farmer, providing too much moisture, cracking susceptible fruit, blowing down fields of sweet corn, or muddying produce following a rainstorm, making harvest more difficult. When the harvest is exclusively done via a pick-your-own format, these natural occurrences can mean a total crop loss, as customers will choose not to pick any of this produce, leaving food to rot.
Farmers don’t want to expend time and labor harvesting crops which will be difficult, at best, to sell, and may make the decision not to harvest a crop which has been damaged, or which cannot efficiently be harvested, attempting to cut their losses.
“Every time that the people are picking, they’ll have a few that they will throw on the ground... because there are always a few that aren’t quite perfect,” Donaldson said, touring the pick-your-own peach orchard with celebrity chef Alex Guarnaschelli during the filming of the program. The orchard floor was blanketed with edible, fresh peaches left behind by customers. Guarnaschelli looked at these fruits in bewilderment, finding most had only a “tiny little blemish.”
“We have to train ourselves to eat less than perfect peaches,” Guarnaschelli said. Guarnaschellit, teamed with Anne Burrell, utilized the rejected peaches from Donaldson Farms in their menu.
Eventually, all of this field waste makes it into the compost pile, or is turned under in the field.
At Donaldson Farms, the extensive compost pile invoked cries of disbelief and dismay from Guarnaschelli.
“I can’t believe that your compost pile is as beautiful as the stuff we’ve seen in your fields,” she said.
While much discarded produce makes its way to the compost pile, some produce finds its way to feed the hungry. America’s Grow-A-Row, based in Hunterdon County, regularly sends a crew out to glean fields at local farms, donating edible produce to area food banks, church pantries and other food assistance programs. They also glean from supermarkets, collecting that less-than-perfect produce.
Some food banks accept donations of unsaleable produce. However, the labor of harvesting, storing and delivering the product may well fall to the farmer, creating an additional expense on the farm. Some programs do not want certain items, having experienced difficulty with utilizing them. The perishable produce has a short life span, making it impractical in many situations. The food banks and pantries may not always have a way to store the produce properly, or to distribute it in a timely manner.
“On our farm, there is a difference between unmarketable and inedible,” Dudas said. “So if its moldy, squashed or significantly buggy or bruised, it goes into our compost heap.”
Otherwise, it is donated, but it is not always needed or wanted by the food banks.
Dudas explained that eggplant, bell peppers, tomatoes, shallots and fingerling potatoes were all unwanted by the food banks the day the Food Network visited the farm. It was this bruised produce, destined for the compost, along with some going-to-seed basil, which chef Michael Symon, teamed with Bobby Flay, used in their dinner menu.
The dinner guests raved about the meals made from waste, and were surprised that rejected food, destined for the trash, was actually a treasure. Dudas, a guest at the dinner, was “blown away by the quality of the food prepared with waste ingredients.”
“I think that now, when I do buy for my restaurants, I’ll think a lot about not minding so much nature’s imperfections,” Guarnaschelli said at the program’s end.
The three other chefs — Flay, Symon and Burrell — were likewise inspired, all agreeing that they would routinely utilize blemished produce after seeing how perfectly good food is wasted for superficial reasons.
Ideally, much of what is now considered “waste” would be accepted as the perfectly healthy and nutritious food that it is, and consumers — such as the celebrity chefs — would no longer reject produce for an insignificant blemish.