Reducing Food Waste is About More Than Saving Scraps

July 15, 2016

It's frightening to think about just how much edible food is wasted in the U.S. each year: Earlier this week, The Guardian reported that 1/3 of all foodstuffs—about 60 tons, worth $160 billion—is wasted by retailers and consumers every year.

(Unfortunately, those numbers concur with worldwide waste: On the global level, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 1/3 of all food grown is lost or wasted, estimated at $3 trillion. To visualize it: That amount of food would cover all five New York boroughs, as well as Jersey City and Newark.)

One-third of all foodstuffs—about 60 tons, worth $160 billion—is wasted by retailers and consumers every year.

But the unfathomable quantity of waste (according to the EPA, discarded food is the biggest single component of landfills and incinerators) isn't made up of the lettuce that your family (and millions of others) forgot about, or the leftovers you never quite got to.

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Food is wasted at all levels of production, well before it reaches your home.

To hedge risks of insects, blight, and weather—and to protect themselves against the fluctuation of supply and demand—growers often over-plant, which results in surplus crop and never-harvested fields.

And, at harvest time, "vast quantities of fresh produce grown in the U.S. are left in the field to rot, fed to livestock or hauled directly from the field to landfill, because of unrealistic and unyielding cosmetic standards," according to the Guardian. "Ugly" vegetables are abandoned to save the expense and labor of harvesting it; blemished food that does make the cut might be left to rot in warehouses when grocers refuse to stock the shelves with imperfect produce because American shoppers refuse to buy it. It's a messy, wasteful sequence that does ultimately spring from the consumers' desires. Ultimately, it does start with us.

Doug Rauch, the former president of the Trader Joe’s Company told The Atlantic that “Grocery stores routinely trash produce for being the wrong shape or containing minor blemishes." (Last year the biggest supermarket in the U.K., Tesco, agreed to giving away its unsold food last year, after it admitting to throwing away 30,000 tons of edible food.) Noticing this waste, Rauch founded The Daily Table, a grocery store in Dorchester, Massachusetts that sources food that other grocers don't want and sells it for a discounted price.

The great American squandering of produce appears to be [...] enabled in large part by a national obsession with the aesthetic quality of food.
Adam Chandler, The Atlantic

Of course, there are circumstances that make all of this food waste possible—The Atlantic pegs the cheap price of food in the U.S. as compared to prices in the rest of the world as a primary reason. And yet, writer Adam Chandler hypothesizes that "the great American squandering of produce appears to be a cultural dynamic as well, enabled in large part by a national obsession with the aesthetic quality of food." The problem is deeply entwined in our economy and our culture (could our endless Instagrams of perfect farmers market produce and our desire to always have the best of everything, especially when it comes to food, have a role here?); it's hard to isolate and it's bigger and more complicated than the apple peels I throw in the compost bin when I'm making pie.

This is not to exempt me from saving my radish tops or making sure even not-so-great tomatoes find a good home in a savory cobbler. But it is to say that, even if these little things help, there is more to be done: We can support companies, like The Daily Table or San Francisco's Imperfect Produce or Baltimore-based Hungry Harvest, that recover food that would otherwise be wasted; we can go to farmers markets and buy the knobby peppers to let the growers know we still want them; and we can support chefs, like Dan Barber, Tom Colicchio, Roy Choi, and Daniel Patterson, who are making the food waste conversation a popular news item.

So yes, when you're cooking, don't throw away your cauliflower stems; but when you're shopping, buy the darker-hued heads—they're perfectly fine.

To read more about where food waste happens:

Do you select the less-than-perfect fruit and vegetables at the grocery store? (Or are have they been weeded out before that point?) Tell us in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Alexandra G
    Alexandra G
  • Aliwaks
  • SKK
  • Susan
  • JulieQC
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Alexandra G. July 27, 2016
In South Florida, where I am originally, from we lived next to a tomato farm and one year the tomatoes where never picked, but left to rot on the vine. Out of curiousity I checked local news sources to see if maybe there was a disease or pest going around, but nothing from what I could find. The irony? The farm is right on a major road, a simple painted sign letting passersby know the tomatoes could be picked for free is all it would have taken to prevent so much waste.
Aliwaks July 18, 2016
There's a difference between imperfectly shaped produce and blemished produce-- Crazy looking carrots ok no matter where I find them-- bruised, past their prime or wilty carrots that's a whole other I think the message gets confused and the message needs to be stronger that ugly doesn't mean rotten. Blemished however does mean they are damaged and just like a sweater missing a button is still pretty good if you are willing to fix it, and just like that sweater should be offered at ALL food store at a discount- those of us who know that those slightly banged up peaches will still make a banging chutney and are willing to spend the time it takes to coax those wilted carrots in to something worth eating, can do so and reap the benefits.
SKK July 18, 2016
1975 we threw out 900 25 pound boxes of peaches. Why? The fruit came on late and when we were ready to transport the grocery stores were already getting ready for Halloween. Did not work for their marketing plans. Could to give the fruit away - it was ripe and needed to be taken care of immediately. At that time I realized there was a problem with distribution and sales because it seemed to be about marketing rather than feeding people.
Susan July 17, 2016
As a long time gardener, I treasure - and use - all my produce, even the homely stuff. I've developed various techniques over the years to deal with the bad parts (a quick sniff will tell you if/when you've removed all the bad parts from a tomato), but I would very much like to hear about other strategies for dealing with what's really more normal produce than the pretty items at Kroger.
JulieQC July 16, 2016
I am guilty of this. Ugly veggies in my csa box, im fine. But picking out fruit and veggie, i am going for the best looking ones.
Zozo July 16, 2016
Great article Sarah - you've hit the nail on the head about food waste being a cultural issue, not just an individual-in-the-kitchen one. And what is culture but a collection of values?
M July 15, 2016
As we broach this topic with greater frequency, I hope to see more education about the practicalities of this, and the more nitty-gritty details about food. I fear there are many who are interested in combatting this problem but do not have enough education to feel comfortable doing so.

Like: What "gross-looking" things on various vegetables don't matter, and which do.. Which discolourations are safe, and which aren't.. How we can properly clean and prepare an imperfect vegetable.. Which foods can have mold or deterioration safely cut off, and which can't.. What bugs to worry about or not, and how to safely combat them..

Sarah J. July 15, 2016
These are such great suggestions, M. Thanks for this! Let's get started!!
AntoniaJames July 17, 2016
You should go out to the produce wholesale markets (the ones that are busy at 4 in the morning) and interview individuals working at various levels of the supply chain. Most of the really interesting stuff will be learned from people who don't spend much time online.

On another note, I have to chuckle when I see "news" discussions about the sale of imperfect produce. For as long as I've been going to Oakland's Chinatown (several decades) it's been obvious that at least some of the less than perfect produce brought to the wholesale markets six blocks west are being sold in Chinatown for 20 - 60 percent of the price of perfectly shaped, symmetrical, unblemished produce in the shops in Oakland's affluent neighborhoods. Similarly, certain vendors at our nearby farmers markets sell at lower prices across the board than others at those markets, for the same reason, without identifying any particular item as "imperfect".
Though I'm admittedly no expert on this, it seems to be a rather obvious case of market efficiency.

Finally, I learned recently that our local Whole Foods sells imperfect small potatoes - oddly shaped, not uniform size -- for about 1/3 of the perfect, in conspicuously branded net bags. It's good to see. ;o)
Fredrik B. July 15, 2016
I remember helping my parents buy groceries and routinely scrutinising fruit after the "prettiest" one. If I returned with a blemished orange or an unevenly shaped tomato, they'd put it back.
Nancy July 15, 2016
Thank you for this article - good perspective, good to raise our eyes from the scraps to the bigger picture.
702551 July 15, 2016
It’s the same with meat, fish, whatever. Fisherman catches some crabs missing claws and/or legs. Do you think that crab will end up in a grocer’s seafood display? No way. Those are going to the processing plant to get turned into crab meat unless you drive to the harbor and ask the fisherman if he has any crabs missing appendages that he would be willing to sell at a discounted price (something I have done).

Once you start attending the farmers market on a regular basis, grocery store produce sections look increasingly bizarre, like the Stepford Wives or something uncannily perfect.

At some point, someone always does a triage of blemished food.

Sometimes it's the farmer, leaving the bad ones in the field or sending them to a commercial processing plant that will pay less at wholesale. Why would a grocer want to buy a case of apple at wholesale if most of them were blemished? Sometimes it's the grocer, only putting out the good ones in the display cases.

I buy almost all of my produce at my town's farmers market and I am happy to peruse the bargain bins that are at several vendors' tables. Some of the stuff really much be addressed either that day or within a day or two, either cooked or consumed. At those tables, it is the market staff who is doing the triage and putting the blemished ones into the bargain bins.

Heck, if I'm at a farmers market table and there are a bunch of peaches all at the same price, for sure I am going to pick the ones that look the best. That’s just human nature.

I've already commented on this topic in other recent posts so I won't rehash the same points I've mentioned elsewhere.
PHIL July 15, 2016
nobody is commenting here, they are too busy commenting on the cat name article.
Sarah J. July 15, 2016
Too true.
PHIL July 15, 2016
You guys are really on this topic this month. I don't usually see the misshapen fruit in the supermarket, more likely at farmers markets, I don't care unless I am making something that needs to be picture perfect but we have been taught that the perfect shaped fruit or vegetable is better quality. If the demand/ acceptance grows then businesses will follow.