As a kid you may have been scolded at least once by an adult for wasting food — whether it was for not cleaning your plate or maybe even flinging uneaten veggies at your sibling. But by now you’ve likely come to realize that food waste is a much bigger and more serious problem than a few uneaten Brussels sprouts. An estimated 40% of food in the United States goes to waste, which is essentially the equivalent of us tossing $165 billion into landfills each year, according to the National Resource Defense Council. In California alone, we throw out around 5.6 million tons of food every year, which accounts for 18% of the state’s waste stream. Perhaps an even clearer visual for those of us in Southern California comes from Jonathan Bloom, author of “American Wasteland”, who points out that each day Americans waste enough food to fill Pasadena’s Rose Bowl.
The amount of food wasted is not only shocking when we consider that around one in six Americans are food insecure — meaning they lack access to sufficient amounts of affordable, nutritious food — but it also means tremendous amounts of valuable resources are wasted. Meanwhile the food rotting in landfills is one of the biggest contributors of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas that’s at least 25 times more powerful in global warming than carbon dioxide. While the issues of food waste are vast and complex, thankfully there are an array of non-profits, government agencies, businesses and entrepreneurs working to address those issues, many of which are right here in Southern California.
Saving the “Ugly” Produce
One entrepreneurial startup that’s working to address the issue of food waste is Imperfect Produce, which aims to give consumers access to “ugly” or “cosmetically challenged” fruits and vegetables at a discounted price. Initially launched in the Bay Area in 2015 and now available in Los Angeles, the company sources produce that might look a little “wonky” on the outside yet tastes the same on the inside and delivers customizable boxes of the produce to customers’ doors each week just like a CSA. These so-called ugly fruits and vegetables would otherwise go to waste on farms because they’re typically rejected by supermarkets and produce distributors for minor cosmetic imperfections such as being the wrong shape, size or color. According to Imperfect Produce, roughly one in five fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. don’t meet those strict cosmetic standards, which means they’re either ploughed under or wind up in landfills.
Roughly one in five fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. don’t meet produce distributors' strict cosmetic standards, which means they’re either ploughed under or wind up in landfills.
“We're very passionate about breaking down these grading standards that keeps the public from having the choice to buy perfectly edible, delicious food at lower prices,” says Ron Clark, Co-Founder and Chief Supply Officer of Imperfect Produce. “We want to develop a broader marketplace for growers to sell food that they grow, as well as provide good jobs for employees.”
Prior to helping launch Imperfect Produce, Clark worked for 20 years with California Association of Food Banks and was tasked with developing the Farm to Family Program, a successful program that sources 125 million pounds a year of "ugly produce" to the food banks within the state of California. While attending a food waste conference in 2014, Clark met Ben Simon and Ben Chesler, who had previously co-founded the the Food Recovery Network, which redirects food that would otherwise go to waste on college campuses to those in need. Within six months of meeting, Clark, Simon and Chesler went on to launch Imperfect Produce.
“We have this completely false notion of what fruits and vegetables should look like and it's not a surprise given how food looks in the supermarket,” explains Bloom. “You'd be hard pressed to find an apple that isn't completely, perfectly round and just perfectly red. And I think that we as consumers have been a part of that problem as well, because our behavior actually drives stores' outrageous demands on farms. So that's where we as consumers have to make our opinions known and let stores know that we'd love to buy fruits and vegetables that aren't superficially perfect.”
Imperfect Produce customers can choose from a range of options to be delivered, including organic or conventional; the size of the box (small to extra large); and whether they want all fruits, all vegetables or a mix. Clark also says they aim to include interesting selections of produce that you might not think to pick out at the store, in addition to the core selections like onions, potatoes and carrots.
“Our real mission is to make a lasting change in the food distribution system where we value all the produce that's grown, not just the perfect ones,” Clark explains. “It's an actionable step for people to take against climate change. It's ecologically sound in terms of using the resources and all of the different inputs that go into growing that food (fertilizers, water, labor, land use) ... We also want to expand food access to low income populations that may or may not be able afford fresh produce right now. So we're offering it anywhere from 30 to 50% below retail price and we deliver it to your door.”
Clark explains that Imperfect Produce has identified carriers that are able to deliver their boxes overnight to almost anywhere in California at an affordable rate. By doing so, they aim to bring the fresh, affordable produce not just to major cities, but also smaller towns where low-income families struggle with food insecurity and access. “Food is very difficult the further out you go. The dollar stores and the gas stations basically represent their choices in a lot of these small towns, and that's not a very healthy choice,” he says. And they don’t plan on stopping with just California, “We're expanding across the U.S. and hope to be on the East Coast within three years. In terms of actual volume and impact, I think it will be very significant within the next three years.”
Gathering the Neglected Harvest
Here in Los Angeles, another effort focused on reducing the amount of perfectly good produce that goes to waste and redirecting it to those in need comes from Food Forward. Launched in 2009 by Rick Nahmias, the nonprofit collects fresh vegetables and fruits that would normally go to waste from farmers markets, public orchards, the downtown Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market, and even backyard fruit trees, and then donates it all to hunger relief agencies across eight counties in Southern California. To date they’ve donated over 30 million pounds of fresh produce.
“One of the biggest problems with food waste is that it's not only that one peach that is being thrown away,” says Laura Jellum, Outreach & Communications Manager of Food Forward.
When you think about all of the resources that contribute to getting that one peach into your hands, you're talking about water, you're talking about labor, you're talking about production, you're talking about transportation costs, and on and on. Because food is relatively cheap and so many of us have unlimited access to whatever we want, it's easy to say, 'Oh, I'm only out the $1 this peach cost me if I throw it away,' when, in reality, all of the resources that got the peach to the grocery store are going to waste as well. When that is happening on such a large scale, we are squandering food and resources, not to mention increasing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions when this food is dumped in the landfill. And, when you consider the high rate of food insecurity across the country, the issue of food waste is even more troubling.
Jellum explains that Food Forward addresses this issue by stepping in, just at the right time, to ensure that perfectly good produce doesn’t go to waste. “We are fortunate to have trees covered in fruit, hundreds of farmers markets and a huge wholesale produce market in our region, but Los Angeles also has the largest population of food insecure individuals in the country. Food Forward works to bridge that disparity by connecting fresh produce that would normally go to waste with the people who need it most.”
Food Forward welcomes volunteers from L.A. and Ventura Counties to pick fruit or collect unsold produce from farmers markets across the region, either for a one-off event or long term. “Either way,” Jellum says, “participating in one of our produce recovery events provides volunteers with a hands on way to make a real impact on fighting food waste and hunger. Plus, it's just really fun.”
Another Angeleno who found a creative way to keep food waste from landfills and instead turn it into something useful is Kaitlin Mogentale, founder and CEO of Pulp Pantry. As an environmental studies major at USC already obsessed with food waste, Mogentale observed a friend juice a carrot, and after realizing the leftover pulp would be tossed, decided to bake carrot pulp cookies. What resulted was a delicious a-ha moment, when she realized that the majority of commercial juiceries across Los Angeles — and there are a lot of them — were just throwing away the leftover pulp. Lacking the resources, capacity or motivation, most weren’t even composting the leftovers. Not long after, Mogentale launched Pulp Pantry with the goal of turning the hundreds of pounds of pulp that juiceries around L.A. toss into healthy snacks, including grain-free granola and veggie crisps that are loaded with vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Mogentale is now looking for ways to co-brand with commercial juiceries and create a private label of snacks made from their excess pulp, which can be sold in-store and utilize their existing distribution networks. She admits that convincing juiceries to participate can sometimes be a challenge, though she’s hoping that businesses will be motivated to look to Pulp Pantry as an alternative way to dispose of organic waste required by legislation such as California Assembly Bill 1826. “I am finding that although juiceries are going to need someone to help them reduce organic waste, it's actually really hard to motivate them to take on what in their eyes is an extra project,” Mogentale says. “Even though I'm pitching as something that I want to make automated for them where I just pick up the pulp and drop off a product for them to sell, it's hard to get people motivated to make the jump.” Mogentale currently sells her products online, at select shops around town such as Erewhon Natural Market, Grow DTLA, and Renew Juicery, and special events.
She also hopes to extend her business model to further address the issue of food insecurity, a topic that had in part motivated her to start the business initially. “My vision going forward is about making products that are delicious, affordable for people and extremely healthy, while touching on the trends of today so that we know we'll be selling product. And then once that moves forward and we can figure out how to generate revenue, how we can work with juicery partners so that we're not neglecting the people that are so often disenfranchised by the food system. In L.A. we have people who are spending $10 on a bottle of fresh, cold-pressed organic juice and yet in South L.A. there are people who don't even have access to the fresh produce to begin with, let alone pay money for a product like that.”
Addressing Food Waste on a Policy Level
“I think there's definitely room for entrepreneurship and creativity using food waste and food scraps,” says Iesha Siler of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, which works to develop policies and partnerships in public, private, nonprofit and academic sectors, to ensure that food is healthy, affordable, fair and sustainable for all Southern Californians. “Pulp Pantry is an awesome model of using the waste from juiceries because that food is still good, and I think Imperfect Produce is really great too. L.A. Kitchen is also a great model because they also rescue tons of surplus food from wholesale markets and grocery stores, and have a whole culinary program where they work with formerly incarcerated people and homeless folks ... They prepare the food and learn skills through a culinary arts program and then the food is fed to those most in need.”
While Siler admires the work of entrepreneurs in helping to combat food waste, the L.A. Food Policy Council approaches the issue with a broader, countywide scope, bringing together municipalities, food recovery groups and hunger relief organizations. “We work mainly on the policy level and look at how to partner with cities that are working on food waste,” she explains. “Recently we worked with the City of Los Angeles over a six to seven year period under their Zero Waste L.A. plan, and their recently updated franchise system, to include in their hauler contracts a requirement to partner with food recovery organizations in order to divert organic material from the landfill.”
Siler also points to the Council’s Food Waste Prevention and Rescue working group, which is comprised of food recovery organizations and composting nonprofits that are increasing awareness and working to recover food. “Whether it be from a restaurant or a grocery store, a wholesale market or a farmers market and then making sure it gets to the hungriest of people in the county,” she says. The Council also just published the Los Angeles Area Food Recovery Guide, which highlights and profiles members of the working group that are doing the work of food recovery and tackling food waste from different aspects, including businesses, nonprofits and government agencies.
“We're also really interested in working on community composting,” Siler says, particularly working with Michael Martinez of LA Compost who is building community compost hubs around the county. “Obviously, not all surplus food can be diverted to those most in need. Some food just has to be composted like food scraps or leftovers in a restaurant or school food that made it to the trash can. We realize that the food should either be feeding hungry people or going back to regenerate the soil.”
Food Waste Statewide
Heather Jones, spokesperson for the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery, also known as CalRecycle, explains that the state agency is doing its part to reduce food waste and remove organic materials from the landfills. “We're focusing especially on food rescue to get it out of the landfills,” she says. “Of course, you can compost and there are some other high-tech things you can do with it [such as anaerobic digestion facilities that convert the waste into biogas], but we all know there are people who are food insecure in California, so the best use for this food, if it's high-quality food still, is to get it to needy people.”
CalRecycle works with jurisdictions across the state to find ways to divert food waste from landfills and redirect it to those in need with the help of educational workshops, as well as grants and loans. Jones points out that a lot of food that goes to landfills is still in it's original packaging, it's not expired and is perfectly usable, especially from restaurants and other businesses that work with food. “So we have a lot of greenhouse gas grant funding available, and we do prioritize programs that can get this usable food to communities because that is the best, highest use of food to get it to people who need it, rather than compost or send it to an anaerobic digester for biogas.”
Jones believes that awareness around the issues of food waste is increasing, in part thanks to Imperfect Produce and other programs. “People are realizing how much perfectly good food is going to waste both at grocery stores and retail outlets. I think the awareness is definitely increasing especially with the greenhouse gas laws that are passing. I do think the word is getting out.”
From Farm to Fork
Bloom claims that one of the next big steps in tackling food waste needs to take place on the farm level. “Americans are wasting food from farm to fork, and there's a lot at every step of that food chain, but the two largest contributors to our national food waste problem are at the farm level and in households,” he says. “People tend to focus on the household level for good reason because it gives us some agency, we can actually do something about that. But the farm level loss is, to me, that holy grail. It's the one part of the food waste equation that we haven't quite figured out. We don't really know how much food never leaves the farm and, as a result, there isn't as much action and certainly not the level of attention on that level of food loss and waste. And the reason I'm so excited about that particular sector is because it's unadulterated raw food, the healthiest stuff out there. And if we can figure out a way to systematically get that excess produce and other primary goods from the farm level to those in need, for example, then we'd be doing quite a service to the food insecure in America.”
For those of us consumers looking to cut down on our food waste at home, Bloom encourages us to become smarter shoppers and not buy too much food. “The status quo is that Americans are just buying waste essentially, they're ensuring that they waste food because they simply buy too much at the store,” he says. “And so here's a terribly unsexy idea: try to have a little more discipline, plan meals and create a shopping list, then actually stick to that list at the store. That's probably the best advice that I can give.”
Bloom also recommends going shopping more often and buying less each time, which will help to make sure that you don't load up your refrigerator to the point where you couldn't possibly use all of the items before they go bad. In addition to cutting down on the clutter in the refrigerator so you can see what’s important, he suggests putting the newer items in the back and pushing the older ones to the front. Creating a priority shelf with soon-to-expire items helps as well. And when it comes to meal time, he suggests, “serving reasonable portion sizes, and making sure that people don't end up with too much of something on their plate or the wrong kind of thing. Anytime we have more choice in what ends up on our plate, we tend to waste less.”
Both Bloom and Siler say that there’s a lot that can be done to cut down on food waste by changing the ways in which expiration dates are used for food. “There's also policy movement on the state level looking at expiration dates and what they really mean because a lot of people are throwing away food on a consumer level based on those expiration dates, which are not always accurate,” Siler says. Consumers are often confused by expiration dates, assuming they mean that the food will be inedible or even dangerous after the date printed. Often times, however, the “best by” or “expires by” dates aren’t an indicator of food safety, but rather peak freshness or how long they should be on store shelves as determined only by the manufacturer. There’s no federal or state regulation or standardization to determine the dates or their meaning, with the exception of baby formula, and therefore they can vary widely and confuse the public. “I think we should ignore expiration dates altogether,” says Bloom. “They're indicators of food quality, not food safety, so if you were to instead trust your senses — your sense of smell, taste and sight — I think you'll be fine. I trust those senses before the date stamped on the package. And I think there's a real misnomer there with expiration dates, food does not just expire at midnight on the date stamped on the package, but rather there's a spectrum of edibility.”
Looking back on the past ten plus years when he first began examining the issue of food waste, Bloom observes that we’ve become more aware of how much food is wasted in the U.S., and that notable progress is being made. “In the last two or three years there's been a real uptick in solutions proposed, and a real exciting amount of entrepreneurial activity on the topic, but I think we still have a long way to go to do some of the actual heavy lifting on finding food waste solutions and implementing these rather painful changes that will make the biggest difference when it comes to minimizing food waste.” The good news, he says, is that all of us — from individuals to entrepreneurs, non-profits to businesses, policy groups to government agencies — can do our part. “The best thing about the food waste problem is that there's room for everyone to be involved and be a part of the solution.”
Top image: Food Forward