Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
In New York City and Washington, D.C., massive festivals are celebrating weird-looking produce—and fighting the problem of food waste.
BRONX, NEW YORK—At 9:00 a.m. on a chilly April morning, it already feels like the middle of the workday at the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx. The sprawling parking lot is an obstacle course of trucks backing into loading docks. The air smells like peppers. In one room, employees are sorting through a 2,500-pound bag of potatoes, culling out ones with blemished or broken skin. The spuds tumble down a conveyer belt and onto scales, then plunk into 5- or 10-pound bags for consumers to buy at grocery stores.
“This is the life-blood of New York’s food world,” says Dominika Jarosz, the global campaigns manager for the food waste organization Feedback. I’m accompanying her on a trip to canvass the market before the Feeding the 5000 event in Manhattan’s Union Square on May 10. She’ll glean cast-off produce from the market and other local organizations to cook an enormous public feast, as well as 5,000 meals for food banks and shelters, all with the aim of raising awareness about food waste. (A similar event is planned in Washington, D.C., on May 18.)
Pallets of cantaloupes, pattypan squash, daikon, and Bosc pears roll by. Bunches of broccoli rabe chill on crushed ice. Wilted leaves are underfoot. Overhead, stenciled signs caution against smoking and hitching a ride on the forklifts’ jacks.
Comprising 113 acres and 1 million square feet of interior space, Hunts Point is one of the largest wholesale produce markets in the world. Trains, trucks, and trailers haul in produce from 49 states and 55 countries. Restaurants, stores, and catering companies trek out to the facility—surrounded by scrap metal yards and auto body shops—to make their selections.
At first glance, the market—essentially a visual feast of abundance—is an odd place to think about food waste. Then again, with so much coming through the doors each day, some of it languishes.
In the U.S., more than 63 million tons of food is wasted each year, spanning all levels of the supply chain, from farms to fridges.
That waste is partly due to a set of arbitrary cosmetic standards. For consumers, bigger isn’t always ideal, says Myra Gordon, the market’s executive administrative director. Instead, uniformity is what sells—a single, rich color; a plump shape. Sometimes, that uniformity is imposed retroactively—picture stalks of celery with the leaves chopped off. Unfortunately, says Gordon, “the eyes, not the taste buds, are what buy produce.” Companies “have an idea of what’s saleable,” says Jarosz. “So where’s the rest of it?”
Before the produce even reaches Hunts Point, Jarosz says, it’s often been subjected to a sorting process to weed out anything that’s not a uniform size, shape, or color. (A report released in March estimated that about 16 percent of food waste—or 10 million tons of food each year—happens at the farm level.)
Then, it undergoes another sorting process when it arrives. A room is devoted to sorting tomatoes, tossing them into crates by size and color. Different types of customers have different requests, says Gordon. She finds that delis, for instance, prefer tomatoes that are still partly green; tomatoes that are too ripe or juicy don’t slice neatly, and could slide out of sandwiches.
Gordon helped spearhead the market’s first donation programs about 20 years ago, when she realized that there was so much food coming in each day that there was simply no way to sell it all. At peak season, Gordon says, the market might be inundated with a glut of berries or greens—more than buyers are looking to purchase. “You can’t tell mother nature to stop growing,” says Gordon. “The stuff needs to keep moving.”
That un-purchased food is often redistributed, through partnerships the market has developed with City Harvest and the Food Bank of New York City. (A Good Samaritan food donation act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, waives liability for “good faith” food donations made to non-profit organizations.)
The Feeding the 5000 rallies, which are partly sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation’s Yield Wise initiative, have already been staged in 30-odd cities around the globe, including Amsterdam, which offered fodder for the clever tagline, “Damn food waste!” in the video below. They serve as “a show of strength and expression of solidarity on the issue, which concerns everyone who eats food,” says Tristram Stuart, Feedback’s founder and the author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. A shared meal, consisting of ingredients that would otherwise be wasted, is at the center of each event.
A giant bowl of salvaged ratatouille, Stuart tells CityLab, is a delicious way to convey his message that “an awful lot of the food being wasted across the world and across the supply chain hasn’t got anything wrong with it—it’s actually perfectly good food that has no reason to be chucked away.” Stuart is crusading against the emphasis on photogenic foods. “Whether a carrot is straight or slightly crooked is beside the point,” he says. He advocates intervening at the surplus stage, long before produce is browning or wilted. “There’s no need to take anyone anywhere near their yuck-factor boundaries,” he says.
The rallies encourage attendees to demand change from the food industry. Across the globe, the most sweeping change has been in the retail sector. The U.K. grocery chain Tesco announced last month that it would relax stipulations that required green bean growers to provide beans within a specific size range and to trim off the ends; The Guardian reported that this change could prevent 135 tons of beans from being wasted each year. In Canada, the national Loblaws and No Frills chains launched a line of “blemished, misshapen” fruit called Naturally Imperfect, the Globe and Mail reported. Produce in that line is about 30 percent cheaper than its prettier counterparts.
In New York, waste-reducing changes are being enacted by a handful of restaurants, too. Great Performances, a catering company that will be lending a hand to produce the Feeding the 5000 event, offers a “Traditional Line” of hors d’oeuvres that makes use of scraps, galvanizing customers around the idea that this is how their families used to cook. When I visited the company’s Mae Mae Café near SoHo, the executive chef Mark Russell prepared a salad with leftover herbs and blossoms from a party, tossed with beet heads and radish tops and a passionfruit vinaigrette. The idea of repurposing “is what any good chef grows up with,” says Russell.
Rallies like the Feeding the 5000 event, says Liz Neumark, Great Performances’ CEO and founder, can be agents of change for all eaters. “They plant a seed—it doesn’t mean you change your life the next day,” she says. But, she adds, “food politics can change with the next meal.”