Can America Learn to Love Misshapen Veggies?

An ex-Trader Joe's exec's plan to reduce food waste and feed the hungry

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.”

Rauch’s store, on the other hand, will operate as a non-profit, with items priced to compete with fast food. Early in the planning process, he decided to stop short of giving food away like a food bank or a soup kitchen. Rauch tells me that the vast majority of America’s food insecure are working poor, unwilling to accept handouts, but also unable to afford nutritious food. “Dignity is a major issue,” Rauch says. “People want to be normalized; they want to shop like a customer and feel like they have provided for their family.”

As Rauch works through the sensitive issues of pricing and branding, Young believes it is vital to consider the emotional and cultural issues at stake for people in low-income neighborhoods. “A lot of the discussions happening around food justice look at people as rational economic actors,” she tells me. “What that argument misses is that our everyday, mundane act of feeding ourselves is intensely political. It is tied to memory, community, family, and ideas of who we are.” In her research, she has found that food initiatives tend to succeed when there is a cultural awareness about the people they serve. For instance, she points out that in certain neighborhoods, a grocery co-op staffed by white employees might be read as a sign of gentrification, rather than a source of cheaper food.

Rauch has been meeting with members of the Roxbury community to win their support and better understand their needs, but the cultural barriers may be the most difficult ones to navigate, particularly since the store has already received negative press for being a repository for rich people’s garbage. “Let’s face it, if someone asked me if I would like a second helping of food waste, the same answer for anybody in America would be to ‘no’,” says Rauch. “It is all about education and making it clear that we will only sell wholesome, healthy food.” Gunders believes that this cynical reaction is indicative of how misinformed Americans are about their food supply. “Doug has been criticized for trying to sell poor people trash,” she says. “But this points to a fundamental misunderstanding about what constitutes high quality food. Just because food does not look perfect does not mean that it is not delicious and nutritious.”