July 12, 2021

Grocery Aisles: Which produce makes the cut?

When I walk down the aisles in a grocery store, I see rows and rows of perfect produce. Under the lights, it seems like some of it even sparkles! But what happens to the produce that doesn’t catch the light just right? What happens to the misshapen and "imperfect" produce that doesn’t make it to the shelf? This is one of the questions that inspired me to join The 2050 Company as an intern this summer!

 

imperfect produce in grocery store

According to the NRDC, “Food saved by reducing losses by just 15 percent could feed more than 25 million Americans every year, at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.” 


Grocery stores often throw away perfectly good fruits and vegetables to allow us consumers to enjoy the sight of uniform piles of perfect produce. Meanwhile, ⅙ of all Americans are struggling to feed their families. Today, I’ll break down the hidden food waste we rarely get a chance to see in our everyday lives. From apples pulled off shelves to strawberries squashed in trucks, much of this waste happens before you and I even step foot into the store.

 


Waste on the Way: “Imperfect” Produce Lost in Transit.


“One industry consultant estimates that up to one in seven truckloads of perishables delivered to supermarkets is thrown away.” (NRDC.org)

Can you imagine if you lost 1/7th of your work every day, or 1/7th of your gas every time you turned on your car? The loss would be significant! So how is it possible that this same rate of waste at supermarkets can be deemed “normal”?


There are a few factors that come into play. Produce may be considered “unsellable” if it is squished or damaged during transit. Farms decide how many of each item will be packaged into each truckload and they usually want to package as many items as possible into each container to maximize revenue. During that process, much of the produce may end up squished or bruised, and grocery stores will turn away produce that is damaged during the transit process. 


These flaws are often minor, and the produce is still usable. Companies like Imperfect Foods have capitalized on this discarded but usable produce by selling it to customers. The 2050 Company goes one step farther by transforming perishable and “squishable” produce into a long-lasting, hardy powder before it is ever transported. This not only eliminates waste due to cosmetic imperfections, but also ensures that our smoothies never go bad in transit!


Perishable Produce from Shipments to Shelves


As explained by Ricky Ashenfelter, CEO of Spoiler Alert, “Much of the food supply goes wasted not because the food is rotten or spoiled, but because food manufacturers, wholesale distributors and retailers lack the real-time responsiveness and communications support needed to manage unsold inventory.”


One significant reason for waste in transit is the size of shipments, which may be too large for grocery stores to accept. As previously mentioned, farms decide how many of each item they're going to put in a container. If they decide to put 80 watermelons in each container and a grocery store only has room for 50 on their shelves, they may send back the other 30. This “turned away” produce needs to be purchased by another party within about 24 hours to prevent spoilage. 


This leads to the more general problem shaping waste in grocery stores: the perishability of fresh produce. Stores have been grappling with this issue for decades, sometimes introducing preservatives that make produce last for longer, or marketing more durable strains, like the Cosmic Crisp apple, that last longer on shelves. 

 

We approached this problem from a slightly different angle. Our goal with The 2050 Smoothie was to invent a product that maintained all of the taste and nutrition you would expect to find in the produce aisle while extending shelf life to over a year. Grocery stores can stock up on 2050 Smoothie inventory without worrying about it expiring before it makes it into customers’ hands. If they sell their whole stock of smoothies in a week, that’s great! If it stays on their shelves for a couple extra weeks, that’s fine too!


An Incredible Feat

If you were to go back just a few decades and browse your local grocery store, it would look a lot different than the stores we are all familiar with today. We have become accustomed to the idea of buying fresh strawberries in Seattle in January, even if they are only harvested locally in June and July. We don’t often think about all of the logistics needed to harvest those strawberries in California, safely ship them across the country, and make them available on shelves year-round. When we consider how novel and ambitious this process is, it is less surprising that there are still kinks to work out. I think we can all agree that making a wide variety of nutritious fruits and vegetables available year-round is an obvious success. Now we just have to find a way to make this process as sustainable as it is convenient!


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This has been the second installation of The 2050 Company’s “Zero Waste by 2050” blog series. Each week, we'll dive into a new area where food is currently wasted and explore novel solutions to eliminate this waste. To follow along with us on this exploration, please subscribe to The 2050 Newsletter by entering your email address in the footer below!




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