Wednesday, May 13, 2015

some thoughts on hunger and overabundance in america

Last night I went to a panel discussion hosted by Friends of Family Farmers about wasted food and food reclamation from restaurants, grocery stores, and farms. The panel consisted of four passionate people who are doing good work to reclaim food on its way to the dumpster or compost pile and get it into the hands and homes of people who need it. But I have to say I left there feeling like we're all still struggling when it comes to dealing with "food waste" on farms.

One of the groups, Salem Harvest, coordinates groups of volunteers to go into farmers' fields and pick unused produce before it gets tilled in. Elise, the energetic program director, bemoaned the waste of food on farms as farmers pick only what meets the stringent aesthetic guidelines of the market (be it grocery store, restaurant, or farmers' market) and leave the rest, much of which is perfectly edible food. In one situation, volunteers harvested well over 100,000 pounds of butternut squash in two days after a light frost left the squash unsellable.

These two separate but related problems, so-called "ugly" produce and unsold overproduction, are well known to any produce grower. A farmer would be foolish not to plant more than they thought they were going to need. It's an insurance policy against any of the bad things that nature or human error can throw their way. In years when all goes well, the farmer may end up with more crops than they can sell. And what farmer hasn't been frustrated at times by the amount of imperfect produce in their fields?

Unfortunately, the answers offered by panelists last night left me feeling dissatisfied. They seemed to come from an oversimplified version of a farmers' reality, and the food system in general.

Let's take overabundance first. Even on my tiny 2/3 acre farm last year, you could find examples of rampant food waste. Overexuberant in my first year, I planted four 170-ft rows of canning tomatoes, many of which I never found a market for. Things I harvested I usually donated to a food bank later on, if I hadn't sold them, but much of the overabundance of produce never left the farm, as I didn't have the time to pick it. Groups like Salem Harvest (or, for fruit, Portland Fruit Tree Project) offer to bring volunteers onto your land to do it for you. Which sounds like a win-win, right?

The problem for me (and I don't think I'm alone here) is that any produce that gets picked from my farm is produce I can no longer sell. And I make so little money as it is, it's really hard to let that stuff go for free. As I looked at the rows of heavy fruit hanging from last year's tomato plants, I knew in the back of my mind that there was no way I would sell all of it, but I didn't want to stop trying. It wasn't until the fruit was falling from the plants, overripe and rotting, that I was willing to concede defeat. Having volunteers come pick the fruit might have saved me the money of harvesting it myself, but it wouldn't compensate me for all the seed, soil, water, fertilizer, and above all time I'd invested in them. Rather than risk seeing that happen again, this year I slashed my canning tomato planting almost in thirds.

As for "ugly" produce (or produce that's too big, too small, bruised or deformed, but nonetheless edible), I have more leeway than some farmers because my primary market is a CSA. I can harvest a wider quality spectrum and use it as an educational opportunity for my members about what real food looks like. And because I have a season-long relationship with them, they can see that the wacky-looking carrot they got one week will be balanced by a "perfect" one another week. (I may also have some help with this one: I learned last night that ugly produce is now so trendy it has its own Twitter page.)

But still, I leave some culls in the field, and those culls, too, are often edible. Potatoes come to mind, because in many potato beds you find tiny potatoes or ones that were hit by the tractor: potatoes that don't seem worth the time to pick up because people won't want them. Another example is overripe pickling cucumbers, some of which I brought home and made into relish last year, but many of which ended up littering the paths of my cucumber field.

One solution to this problem that was given last night was offering these seconds to customers at a lower price. Again, this sounds like a win-win. The farmer gets money (albeit less) for their crop, and the customer gets to go home with a lower-priced, but perfectly edible, purchase. But at my scale, at least, the inefficiency of having two harvests, two sorting bins, two washing processes, two baskets at market, coupled with the fact that a lower price may not even compensate me for my investments, makes that solution seem like a loser to me.

OK, so enough about the problems of agricultural waste. What about some solutions? I'm no policy person, and I can't generalize for all farmers, but here are a few thoughts I've had since last night.

  • Rather than resorting to a grading system in which premium produce is sold for a higher price and ugly produce for a cheaper one, farmers should be able to harvest all edible produce together and sell it all for a fair price that will compensate us for our investments and time. Customers should be educated so they don't root around in the bin, looking for the most perfect stuff. (Often, I've found, the imperfect stuff tastes better anyway!)
  • As farmers, we should focus on more efficient use of our land. Planting some extra in case of poor production years is always a good idea, but planning for crazy overproduction is not. Our farming system is based largely on the American ideals of limitless land and water. The resource waste inherent in that system is unacceptable in this age of shrinking farmland, drought, and overuse of fossil fuels.
  • As activists for food justice, we should not build a system based on food donations--especially not ones from farmers. Farming is already one of the lowest paid professions in the country. (Or zoom in on this crazy graphic, from the The Atlantic.) While large commodity farms may make their living by selling quantity over quality (and rake in federal subsidies at the same time), most small to mid-sized farms are either creating their pricing based on the actual costs of raising the food (as many direct-marketing farmers do), or pricing it however the market dictates and then designing efficient farming systems so the crop costs as little as possible to produce (as wholesalers often do). In either case, the profit margin is usually not large. "Donations" should be given freely when there is abundance of food or money; they should not be skimmed off the top of already-low coffers.
  • But even if we can convince the eating public (that is, all of us) that eating all of the food a farm produces will provide a better living for farmers, bring the price of food down, and raise the efficiency of food production (as chef Dan Barber argues in his recent best-seller The Third Plate), we still won't be able to combat hunger in this country. Real change in the food system will only come about when all people in the U.S. have the money to pay for the food (and shelter, clothing, and other essentials) they need. Our hunger problem is primarily a wage problem.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argued recently in an op-ed that the wage problem is fixable, if we have the guts to do it. Frankly, I don't have a lot of hope that our government officials will make that happen anytime soon. And until it does, the food reclamation work that's being done by these passionate activists is important. But let's not lose sight of the fact that these are just emergency measures. We can't build a just new food system on crisis-level solutions.

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