The Produce Project: Day 1–Training

As I mentioned last time, I began my first day working in a supermarket produce department throwing out about 50 pounds of fruit and vegetables. My first task was culling all of the packaged produce with a sell-by date that fell on that day, despite it being 8 a.m. 

By the time I had finished throwing away the perfectly good pineapple, watermelon, lettuce, mushrooms, etc., I was told to report to the office for training. This consisted of watching the appropriately titled “Entry Level Produce Associate Training Video” on an old, dusty computer. In that engrossing work, I learned that “the rule of thumb when culling is to ask yourself if you would buy the product. If you wouldn’t buy it, then why would the customer?”

The video continued, “If you ever have a question about whether a product should be culled, remove it and discuss it with your manager.” Later, whenever I’d ask my manager, who I’ll call Larry here, he’d invariably say, “Toss it.”

Moving along in the cartoon-laden training, I learned why I’d been put right to use: All dated items were to be removed by 9 a.m. on the day of the sell-by date. The reason, it explained, was to “ensure we are offering the freshest quality produce to our customers so that they will shop with us again and again.”

You can’t argue with that logic–or can you? Sure, it makes sense, but I know that the clientele also enjoyed saving money. Whenever we would put out discounted bananas that were already ripe, they sold like hot cakes.

The training even featured a visual culling exercise. It pictured an apple and said “Would you cull this item?” After clicking yes or no, I had to pass the same test with a pear, tomato and lettuce. Of course, there were no consequences for answering incorrectly.

The manager occasionally poked his head in a few times to ask if I was done yet. I needed to fill the holes I’d created with that morning’s culling. After all, it looked bad to have empty slots in the cold case. Apparently not as bad as having an item there on its sell-by date.

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3 Comments

  1. Emily
    Posted March 30, 2007 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Jon, it’s interesting to me that the video trains employees on such a simple logic, “would you buy this item?” It shows that the expectation for produce to look perfect is so well established that just about everyone would make the same choices when culling. I know they didn’t make the video with you in mind! You don’t have a problem coming home with impefect produce. I know you wouldn’t pay the same price for the damaged apple as for a pretty one, but if the price were adjusted the bad apple could become quite appealing. So I have a few questions -
    Why don’t stores do more sorting and sell the produce for half price rather than just throw it away?
    How often, if ever, did you come across produce that was really rotten or so damaged that it made sense to throw it in the garbage?
    Lastly, remember how strict they were about inventory for things like candy bars? What a contrast — they basically encourage you to throw away produce, but fire you if you steal a single candy bar. I think that contrast is interesting – but maybe that’s more about the grocery store industry and less about food waste.
    (of course, I think stealing is bad no matter what the item…)

  2. Jonathan
    Posted March 30, 2007 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    It’s true, I believe that produce with a bad spot or some imperfection still has some value. Some stores agree and keep discounted produce racks.

    The store at which I worked didn’t do much sorting and re-selling mostly because they wanted to give customers the idea that they’re selling the freshest product possible. If that means losing some money from produce that could have been sold reduced, they’re OK with that. In addition, they’d say it’s not worth the time to sort through the culls.

    The store did train me to throw away produce that was bad, but I’m sure if they thought a candy bar was subpar, they’d toss that, too. After a short time in food retail, apples, candy and everything in between becomes product–items easily bought, sold, or tossed.

  3. Posted June 30, 2008 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    One reason that stores give for not marking down produce is that people won’t buy the good stuff at all, they’ll only look for the marked down product. One grocery chain here keeps the marked down stuff on a rack right inside the back door, and you can open the door and pick some. They do this because most people won’t know it’s there.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] I recently worked at a supermarket produce department for three months, an endeavor I’ve dubbed The Produce Project. On the first day of work, I got right into the action by tossing more than 50 pounds of ”sell-by” date casualties and watching some computer training videos. [...]

  2. [...] I recently worked at a supermarket produce department for three months, an endeavor I’ve dubbed The Produce Project. On the first day of work, I got right into the action by tossing more than 50 pounds of ”sell-by” date casualties and watching some computer training videos. [...]

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