Can America Learn to Love Misshapen Veggies?

An ex-Trader Joe's exec's plan to reduce food waste and feed the hungry
The EU has designated 2014 to be the “European Year Against Food Waste.” Above, an advertisement from the French grocery store Intermarché calling on consumers to appreciate an apple that would otherwise be tossed. (Osocio)

America’s growing income inequality has dominated the national conversation in recent months, accompanied by an avalanche of data: economists tell us the richest 1 percent of American households earn 20 percent of all income and own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. But how do these figures translate into everyday life? For a glimpse into what has gone wrong, consider America’s food paradox: Grocery stores catering to wealthy shoppers discard billions of pounds of wholesome food because of minor cosmetic flaws while, in low-income neighborhoods across the country, 48 million Americans lack reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.

Doug Rauch, the former president of the Trader Joe’s Company, has first-hand knowledge about America’s food waste. He tells me that he has seen shocking quantities of food discarded because customers expect perfect fruit and vegetables on their supermarket shelves. “Grocery stores routinely trash produce for being the wrong shape or containing minor blemishes,” he tells me. After three decades in the grocery business, Rauch retired four years ago to devote himself to investigating and addressing the problem. The USDA estimates that 31 percent of food produced in America goes uneaten every year, amounting to a loss of $161.6 billion. “Here we are in the richest nation in the history of the world in terms of food production, yet one in six Americans is going hungry,” he says.

Rauch wants to take a stab at tackling this inefficiency in America’s food system. The solution seems obvious to him: Couldn’t we take the excesses of the wealthy and give them to the poor? This is precisely the concept behind Daily Table, a grocery store he is launching this fall in Roxbury, a low-income Boston suburb. Rauch plans to salvage food discarded by supermarkets and sell it at very low cost to consumers who would not otherwise have the means to adequately feed themselves. If this experiment works, he plans to open stores like it around the country.

The main challenge in this endeavor involves acquiring nearly expired produce and circumventing legal restrictions against selling it after its expiration date. As a first step, he is working with the Natural Resource Defense Council to lobby the U.S. government to better regulate wasteful date labeling practices. Dana Gunders, a scientist at the NRDC, tells me that sell-by dates are controlled by food manufacturers and tend to be fairly arbitrary. “When manufacturers put date labels on their food, they are not primarily thinking about safety, but are protecting their brand,” she tells me. “The whole food industry is trying to sell as much product as they can, regardless of whether consumers will use it or not. Companies are conservative with sell-by dates because they want the consumer to eat their food at it’s freshest and have a positive experience with it.”

When I spoke to Kara Young, a food scholar and fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Social Issues, she told me that discarded food already makes its way into many poor neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce, areas known as food deserts. “Bodegas or corner stores often carry food that is expired or about to expire,” she says. “But because it is the only food available in these neighborhoods, it is sold at twice the price.”

Presented by

Elizabeth Segran

is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

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