What Can We Do With Unused Food?
A mountain of food goes to waste every year, discarded because (in the case of fresh fruits and vegetables) an item is deemed too ugly or because we note that the expiration date has passed. A recent report from the National Resource Defense Council and the Harvard Law School describes the “current food labeling regime” as a major culprit behind the $165 billion worth of food that Americans throw out every year.
As the report details, most of that uneaten food ends up in landfills where it accounts for 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions. Given that one in six Americans do not have access to a secure supply of food, we really need to do something different to avoid wasting so much of what we produce, process, package and ship.
Someone has a suggestion and not only is it a good one, but he is also putting his idea into practice.
Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, is planning to open a new market, the Daily Table, that will make use of fresh produce that is slightly past its sell-by date. The Dorchester, Massachusetts, will prepare the food and then sell it at prices low enough to compete with fast-food restaurants.
As Rauch explains it to NPR, the Daily Table is meant to be a “… kind of a hybrid between a grocery store and a restaurant, if you would, because primarily it’s going to take this food in, prep it, cook it [for] what I call speed-scratch cooking.”
Food banks have made it a practice to use food salvaged not only from grocery stores but also hospitals, hotels, caterers, restaurants and farms. Stores tend to cast aside bruised produce, fearing they could be sued. People often misinterpret the date labels on food and discard items that are still safe to eat, as the NRDC/Harvard Law School report says:
The labels are not federally regulated and can vary from state to state. Despite what most people think, the labels don’t communicate whether a product has spoiled. “Use by” and “best before” are just suggestions determined by the manufacturer to indicate when food is at its peak quality. “Sell by” is the manufacturer’s suggestion for when the grocery store should no longer sell the product. There is no uniform criteria for any of those terms.
With all of this in mind, the Daily Table is seeking to both cut down on food waste and also to offer healthy, minimally processed food in areas that have come to be known as food deserts.
There have been naysayers chiding the Daily Table for serving “blemished” “past-its-prime” fruits and vegetables to residents of lower-income communities, as if Rauch’s project will be serving up second-rate food to them. Mattapan City Councilor Charles Yancey says in the Boston Glove that the use of past-its-shelf-life produce is a “PR issue” as “the last thing we want is anyone to buy things that can hurt them.”
The question has been asked again and again why it’s so hard to get fresh produce at reasonable prices in lower-income areas. Too often, such communities’ residents face rising rates of obesity and diabetes in part because of limited options (fast food restaurants and highly processed food products) for what they can eat. The Daily Table is an innovative effort to make healthy food more readily available while, at the same time, seeking to cut down on the world’s food waste. It’s a project that seeks to offer an antidote to often-mentioned public health and environemntal problems and not a moment too soon.
Photo from Thinkstock