Skin-deep Waste II

img_0837.JPGYesterday we talked about how the desire for flawless produce leads to much waste. Pushing the issue further, who’s to blame for this desire?

While Wayne Roberts’ article impugned food magazines, I’d also blame most supermarkets, especially Whole Foods. Most retailers make a point of having bountiful, beautiful displays. Doing so means throwing out imperfect, nonuniform produce.

As Whole Foods’ Web site states, some produce doesn’t make it onto its sales floor:

Our buyers around the country are very discerning about what they purchase, scouring the land for the very best products and sometimes turning away shipments at the door that are undersized or lacking in flavor.

img_0831.JPGOf the produce that is stocked, employees pull an abundance of slightly imperfect produce from the sales floor. Whole Foods’ site refers to “rapid inventory turns,” which means plenty of culling in addition to selling. In the best cases, as in these pictures, the culled items are donated to food recovery groups. Yet, these non-profits are not as widespread as Whole Foods’ stores.

In “Food Porn,” a Forbes article on Whole Foods’ tempting of shoppers, Whole Foods’ co-President Walter Robb describes the stores’ layout: 

“It’s a very visual style,” says Walter Robb, co-president, who runs the western half of the U.S. “More than half of shopping decisions are made on impulse. When you shop, we engage your senses. We want to romance the food.”

The quest for perfect produce doesn’t just come from grocery stores. There is a chain of culpability that explains crops of a certain shape, size and appearance. Farmers are reacting to wholesalers who are reacting to supermarket buyers who are reacting to your perceived demands. Did you know you, the consumer, held so much power? Use it wisely.  

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One Comment

  1. Aggie Stachura
    Posted December 19, 2007 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Jonathan,

    Terrific blog! I’ve been happily reading and following links, and scribbling the names of all the websites your posts have been introducing me to.

    As a former employee of Whole Foods, I wanted to add my 2 cents’ worth to this particular post. When I first started working for the company, many years ago, a thoughtful ’25 cent per pound’ program allowed employees to take home imperfect or blemished produce. Not only did this program help provide healthy fruits and vegetables to employees, but it helped Whole Foods to ‘walk its talk’. As the years passed, however, this program, as well as the policy of allowing employees to take home day old bakery products at the end of the night, was disbanded. Now, not even leftover food from the hot bar is allowed to leave the store. One of the reasons I left Whole Foods was because of this fundamental disconnect between its loudly espoused environmentalism, and the blatant and disgusting waste I saw daily. Each morning, bakery employees would take cartloads of leftover bread, pastries, and cakes, and toss them into the dumpster. I was reprimanded for taking the time to remove the packaging and at least composting the edible parts. I watched produce employees regularly dump cartloads of cut fruit and vegetables into the dumpster–too lazy or too busy to even roll their carts down the hall to the compost bin. Complaining, bringing the behavior to the attention of managers, attempting to educate employees–got me nowhere. Just thinking about it now makes me fume. To me, the hypocrisy is fundamentally worse than the waste–after all, ignorance can be alleviated with education, but what can you do in the face of laziness and an intractable addiction to the bottom line?

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