The Produce Project: Day 4

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.  

Culled Red Pepper My fourth day began with more culling. As I pulled out tomatoes, potatoes and peppers, I thought about how strange it all was. A fruit or vegetable can be 95 percent perfect, but that one bad spot dooms produce to the dumpster. 

I knew that the produce I’d culled was headed to the dumpster, but before this day I hadn’t actually thrown it away. Having to dispose of all that mostly good produce didn’t feel so great. When I was alone, I began setting some stuff aside on the grass next to the dumpster in the hopes that someone might take it home. Upon returning to the dumpster, I’d often find that items had disappeared.

I watched yet another training video that warned of the “bacteria danger zone”–41 to 135 degrees F. It specifically mentioned cut melons as items that needed immediate refrigeration. After that, I made a point to get these into the refrigerated wall first when re-stocking, imagining them rotting from storeroom to shelves. 

On this day, I learned that produce makes up about 10 percent of a store’s sales. That figure was a bit higher than I’d imagined. I also found that shoppers were surprised to see me open two boxes of strawberries, cull the rotting fruit and combine them into one box. There seems to be an illusion that wrapped produce is untouched. Not so. In fact, sometimes we’d pull out the bad strawberries without adding new ones.

Finally, I had to laugh when I witnessed how management views its employees. Two supervisors entered the small office as I was watching a training a video. “Is that the new guy?” one asked, wondering if I was the new management trainee.

“No, that’s produce.”

Just don’t cull me.

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4 Comments

  1. gauri
    Posted November 8, 2007 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Jonathan,

    I just discovered your web site! Good stuff. Did you do any more blogging after day 4 at the supermarket?
    I recently worked for 3 months at a small, independent, local “natural foods” market. There, one of the owners has a farm in town so at least for the summer one of the produce fellows who cares about not wasting, as do I, put the culled produce in a big barrel for the owner to take home to compost. That produce person and I no longer work there so I don’t know what they are doing nowadays. Also, the store has an extensive prepared foods department so they tried to take perishables from fish, meat, and produce as much as possible to turn into something prepared. That cut down the waste quite a bit.
    What I also saw was inadequate tracking of expiration dates on packaged foods, such as aspetic packages of soymilk. They didn’t keep track via computer, I don’t know if that’s possible anyway. Whenever I would find a product within a month of reaching the date, I would place it on sale and diplay it separately. Whatever did not sell had to be tossed. Apparently, prior to my employment, folks working at the store were taking those items home, but a policy was in place when I was hired to stop that and toss the items. Not only was it wasting perfectly good food, but folks were tossing the packaging in the trash! I would empty the product out, e.g. soymilk, and put the empty container in the recycling bins. Speaking of recycling bins, the store wasn’t using them when I first began working there. They didn’t even have any as the town just recently decided to pick up business recyclables, imagine that! I asked the manager enough so they finally got the bins.
    That’s what I witnessed at a small market. Imagine what the larger stores can accomplish with some of these ideas.

    Gauri

  2. Jonathan
    Posted November 9, 2007 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Wow, thanks for sharing your experiences, Gauri. What you’ve said confirms my belief: one person can make a significant impact at a store, institution or company.

    I haven’t blogged about my experiences after Day 4, but thanks for the nudge. I’ll have to get on that!

  3. Posted June 24, 2008 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    found you thru food karma….you have a good site here and i’m linking to the others you have here.

    well, i certainly learned something today. had no idea that all that produce went to waste! it’s a shame. why don’t these supermarkets adopt a plan to donate all of that food to homeless or food shelters?

    and, as far as gauri’s comment, i can’t believe the store would actually prefer folks toss the food than to have them take it home. this just seems so incredible to me. i can’t fathom it.

  4. Steve
    Posted November 24, 2008 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    I worked six months for at a Wal-Mart supercenter in produce until I’d had enough of it. I once threw 800 pounds of oranges into the trash compactor in a single day.

    I’m sure there are at least a dozen reasons why Wal-Mart wastes so much produce (and food in general. They are particularly wasteful of in-store baked items.) Here are some that come to mind:

    1. They buy in such quantities at such deeply discounted prices that management apparently thinks they can afford to be wasteful, and still make money.

    2. They don’t let individual stores’ produce supervisors place orders just for what they know they can move out. In fact, supervisors don’t place any orders. Instead the warehouses (distribution centers) send stuff out to the stores that they serve based on how much had been sent in to them. Who ultimately decides on the quantities that are ordered, I never found out.

    3. Letting workers (“associates”) take home culled food would only encourage them to steal “good” food, or so the thinking goes. Wal-Mart completely distrusts its low-level staff members, who turn over at an astonishing rate compared to other places.

    4. The most important function of the produce department, in the minds of the grocery supervisors, is to “look nice” and enhance store appearance, which they think encourages customers in general to buy. Accordingly, no product can be displayed (even marked down for sale) that has any blemish or irregularity of any sort. (Produce is not primarily there to sell produce, in other words.)

    5. Repackaging (opening bags of oranges, for example, discarding rotten ones and washing and placing the rest in a bin with individual oranges) takes up time, and causes tracking problems with inventory they aren’t smart enough to compensate for. So they don’t try to do it: one bad piece of fruit means a three or five pound bag gets trashed.

    6. Stores can’t decide what to stock based on the sales patterns in the store’s home community. All Wal-Marts stock exactly the same items: the only factor in play is that space may be limited in the smaller stores. I trained in a university town with a large Asian population, but the store there did not stock Asian produce, just the standard stuff. Where I worked there were certain produce items that rarely or never sold but could not be dropped. They leave the leeks, for example, on display until they start to rot, then toss them and put up fresh ones.

    7. With fewer shoppers, produce moves out more slowly at Wal-Mart than at the big grocery chains. This means the product on display is older, it has been in the cooler longer, and often doesn’t look as nice or taste as good as food bought elsewhere.

    8. All in all, there is no mechanism to intervene in the never-ending cycle of waste, and upper management seems to see no need to implement one.

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