Misplaced Outrage About Food Waste

Half of all food waste in the developed world happens at the consumer end - that is, we throw the food that we've purchased or grown away for some reason or another. It spoiled from mishandling, it gets wasted, or for some other reason goes uneaten. We're rarely conscious of this - just as we are rarely conscious of the enormous impact of personal actions at every level. Divide American food waste among 300 million people, and dumping that apple or tossing those fries just doesn't seem like a big deal.

A very small minority of American food waste happens at the farm and field end - this is in contrast to the poor world, where the vast majority of food losses are due to inability to preserve them. So it is fascinating to me how much outrage is being generated about farmers in Florida who are composting the strawberry crop rather than pay to have it harvested.


Is this bad? Sure. But so are prices of 25 cents a lb for strawberries at the farm end. And so are the liability laws that make it risky for a farmer with a minute profit margin to invite workers from food pantries out to harvest. It is interesting to watch the outrage here - and wonder to what consider their own complicity in our food waste paradigm. Don't get me wrong - I'd like to see those farms opened up to harvest - but I'd also like people to realize that rock bottom food prices come with a cost - both to farmers and to them.


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I'm surprised they don't set themselves up as a PYO. Most of our fruit farms up here (even the fairly large ones) found it was far more profitable to set themselves up as a PYO & farm stand, sell berry-flavored donuts and make a haybale maze than to run their business to sell berries to the produce wholesalers. Think they charge something like $2/quart, and they use about 1/3 less labor--still need employees to watch folks, drive tractor-pulled hayrides out to the field, check boxes and sell donuts at the stand, sort of thing. After insurance costs I believe they still do OK, and it's good for the local poor people too, much MUCH cheaper than even WalMart retail prices.

Florida law on right to farm is probably different though. Ideally the farmers should be able to process their berries on-site into frozen, jam, liqueur, etc. but of course that is now the Bureaucratic Nightmare from Heck. :(

It's probably also worth pointing out that strawberries--as delicious as they can be--are pretty non-nutritious, with extremely low caloric content by weight. According to the USDA food nutrient content database, fresh strawberries only have 145 kcal per pound.

Yes, but while relatively few people in the West are short on calories (I'm aware there are some, but it's much less of a problem than in some parts of the world), plenty aren't eating enough fruit and vegetables for good health.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 28 Mar 2010 #permalink

in Germany, the solution to this problem is that farmers at the end of the profitable harvest will open up their fields to private persons. they let you in, show you which row to pick thru, and then at the end sell you the strawberries you picked for pennies on the bucket (not counting the ones you ate directly off the bushes).

totally worth it, and an awesome way to end up with buckets of strawberries for cheap at the end of the season :-)

It's probably also worth pointing out that strawberries--as delicious as they can be--are pretty non-nutritious, with extremely low caloric content by weight. According to the USDA food nutrient content database, fresh strawberries only have 145 kcal per pound.

calories are not the only useful nutrients. And calories ARE handed out by food-pantries*, whereas vitamins usually aren't.


*maybe this is is the appropriate moment to again tell the story of drink-a-cake, the moral of which is to not donate leftover crap from your cupboards to pantries, especially when it's such useless crap like cake-mix :-p

This is just one more example of how messed up our economy is.

By Pygmy Loris (not verified) on 28 Mar 2010 #permalink

We used to take the kids to a strawberry farm in Illinois to pick strawberries. I think these were smaller scale operations which probably couldn't get the strawberries picked any other way.

Maybe 40 years ago, my uncle lived in the Rio Grand Valley. He would come to family reunions with a pickup load of giant vegetables. Story was that farmers couldn't afford to harvest that particular vegetable and would plow them up and throw them over the fence.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 28 Mar 2010 #permalink

I used to administer a program in Michigan that paid farmers to harvest and/or process such crops for donation to food banks. I'm not sure how well it would work for strawberries, which are very highly perishable, but we got a lot of potatoes and apples and other staple produce items that would have been plowed under or otherwise disposed of as "surplus". I'm not sure it still exists -- funds were cut after 2001 (after I left) and it may have been eliminated last year due to Michigan's horrible budget situation. :o( It was a great idea though, and injected some much-appreciated fresh produce into the food-bank system, which is otherwise mostly canned and dry boxed product.

By naturalmom (not verified) on 28 Mar 2010 #permalink

Truly saddening. America has an unhealthy addiction to "cheap" in all forms. I hope we'll wake up to our unhealthy cheap food systems soon.

This happened before with livestock. Back in the late 1990's, prices for hogs became so low that farmers were simply shooting the hogs and letting them compost. At some point, transportation and feed and other costs make it too expensive for farmers to do anything else.

There is no waste. If food is spoiled poultry or hogs can eat it. If it's too far gone for even that, it's compost. When I was principal at a boarding school, I instructed the cafeteria staff to save all uneaten food in plastic lined cardboard boxes, which I then took home & composted. Not only did this provide hundreds of pounds of rich compost over the course of the school year but it also eliminated the septic system problems the school had been experiencing. Staff where I now work pick up 'waste' food from the local hospital for composting. For uneaten food to go to the landfill is a crime. It's a valuable commodity.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 29 Mar 2010 #permalink

"There is no waste." lol. Hilarious. I'm with Greenpa about your absolutes. Keep it up; soon no one at all will bother to read your comments.

Lora- PYO is a good deal more complex. "Build it, and they will come" doesn't work if: you are too far from the customers ("too far" has a thousand variables and fluctuations); your operation is designed for machine harvest, not human; you don't have anyone with the people skills to handle customers with screaming kids, or the ones that sneak their picked stuff out the back and don't pay for it; you don't have/can't afford the insurance; and more.

For MOST growers; it's really not an option. It's really a completely different business from "growing." I've been there.

By ranklebiter (not verified) on 29 Mar 2010 #permalink

Ignorance is amenable by instruction but stupidity is largely genetic and as such, there is no cure for it. Willful ignorance - ignorance that one is proud of - is a hallmark of ignorance having stupidity as its etiology. This being the case, any attempt to remediate such ignorance as rank exhibits is likely a waste of time and hence, not worth the bother.

To others who may be reading these comments I repeat: There is absolutely no waste in nature. The N,P,K,S,Fe, etc... in the "waste" described above are all valuable commodities. If anyone doesn't want it, I'll take it. I'm endlessly hauling such "waste" home for composting. So will the rest of you be doing soon, in wheelbarrows.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 29 Mar 2010 #permalink

That's one of the reasons I have chickens. I became aware of the amount of food we were throwing away when I started seriously gardening and preserving; the work of producing that stuff only to see it go to waste made me think seriously of a way to prevent it (besides keeping better track of what I had, which I also started). The chickens serve two purposes -- one, they eat whatever can't go in the compost bins (meat, dairy, etc) and two, they give me fertilizer which massively cuts down on my imports from the big box stores.

I eat the food anyway in the form of eggs so now it doesn't seem like waste -- it is merely quality chicken feed. :)

Wow, that's a Great Depression trope, the crops rotting in the field because there's no-one to buy them. (Strawberries need a lot of fuel to get to a national market while they're still fresh. Hm.)

This is not misplaced outrage. You are shooting the messenger. It does not take someone with a Ph.D. to understand that a food production and delivery system which produces this much food, much of it destroyed, while poor people cannot even afford healthy food in neighborhoods nearby, is crazy.

A country which destroys perfectly good food while children suffer malnutrition for the lack of it, is a truly insane society.

That's what you are defending here.

Part of the outrage (or perhaps bitterness) is that these same farmers used an inordinate amount of groundwater last winter to keep the produce alive during the very cold winter. This caused lots of local well depletions and sinkholes. (cold is also what delayed the strawberry ripening to coincide with Califonia's season and helped to bring down prices). I believe in theory there is some compensation system for locally affected residents, but perhaps there are too many externalities still left in the system.

Douglas Watts - acknowledging the existing system isn't a defense of it, and I think the one thing no one can accurately accuse me of is supporting industrial agriculture - or for that matter, food waste. But on the great scale of things, the waste of a strawberry crop is not the main driver of our food waste at all. I'd like to see that food harvested and distributed, ideally, but what bothers me is the degree of outrage directed at the farmers (although JM's point is legitimate). The people who could make the biggest difference in our wasted food situation are the people who are attacking farmers caught in the industrial bind. I'd like to see the farmers get out of the industrial bind, but there's no point in demonizing them for being in it.


"A very small minority of American food waste happens at the farm and field end - this is in contrast to the poor world, where the vast majority of food losses are due to inability to preserve them."

With all respect, this is a distinction without a difference.

@ranklebiter: If you are too far away from your market, yeah, I agree, you are SOL. But strawberries in particular are famous for requiring humans to pick them, probably the least-mechanized crop we have. People skills, well, anyone who has previously worked retail for a reasonable length of time can usually manage well enough. Insurance, yes, I can see how some states it would be spendier than others, in many cases much spendier. It seems to depend on which underwriter you're stuck with, some do their homework and actually check the stats before replying to you, others just lose their junk and say NO NO NO. Losses from stealing, well, it depends on how much you can charge whether or not you can make it up; our local PYOs charge about 50-75% of retail, and that seems to be sufficient. I agree it's complicated, but it seems far less risky than supplying the retail market with its whims and insane power differentials between producers and wholesale buyers--at least you know that if you have a crop to sell, you'll probably sell most of it for a decent enough price.

But as you say, location is everything.