Legislative interventions for food waste on the menu in the United States

A story in USA Today details how state governments in the United States are working to keep food out of landfills and onto consumers’ plates.

The article outlines three broad ways that legislation has been enacted in certain regions of the States to reduce the amount of organic waste that ends up in a landfill:

  1. Tax breaks: Tax breaks are a way to incentivize those who produce waste to donate more product that may have originally been shipped to landfill without a second thought. By providing a tax incentive to donors, the government hopes to redirect edible food to people. Additionally, tax incentives may cause business owners to more carefully keep track of and monitor the amount of food being ordered and wasted, to not over order and therefore waste in the future.
  2. Cosmetic standards/Arbitrary Best Before dates: Much food waste is caused cosmetic blemishes to food, which have no affect on the tastiness or nutritional value of said food product. Loosening legislative cosmetic standards to food could go a long way to reduce unnecessary waste.
  3. Bans: Organic bans are a legislative measure which prohibit disposing of organic material, such as food waste, into landfills. They are already in place in small geographies such as Massachusetts. Bans can be useful in areas that have both a high density in population and a low amount of landfill space. They are most effective when they can be monitored by local authorities and enforced closely, with perhaps the threat of fines for not complying with the ban. Otherwise, they  may not be effective as organic waste producers will find other places to ship their waste.

You can read more about further legislative and corporate efforts to reduce food waste here.

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Challenging ideas of imperfect produce in BC

The case for imperfect vegetables has grown recent years, with many large chain grocery stores starting to stock”ugly” produce at a discounted rate, and countless food redirection organizations forming across Canada. One company in BC is challenging “ugly” food perceptions by redirecting fresh, healthy, organic produce from farms directly to consumers.  The company, called “Rebel Foods”, buys misshapen fruits and vegetables from local organic farmers, packages them and sells them at a lower rate than market organic produce. Founder Brody Irvine maintains that the produce is still has the same quality and taste as “perfect” foods.

Brody Irvine is one of the brains behind Rebel Food — a program to get ugly organic fruits and veggies into the mouths of consumers to limit the amount of food waste in the region.

Image: Jennifer Chen via CBC

“We’ve got some pretty gnarly looking carrots — twisted and forked that still tastes great and still has nice crunch and flavour to it, but normally wouldn’t make it to the grocery shelves,” Irvine told the CBC. Rebel Food’s products are starting to appear on the shelves of independent grocery stores, in hopes of providing customers with an inexpensive option for organic produce.

Another company fighting food waste, Fraser Valley Biogas, uses food waste to create natural gas. It now powers over 1000 homes around the area. Co-owner Pete Schouten, whose family has been farming in the area since the 1920s, understands the need for sustainable agriculture initiatives like biogas. For Schouten, the solution has always been clear. “It was drilled into us since we were kids — you just don’t waste anything,” he told CBC. “As farmers, you rely on the land — and if you don’t take care of the land, then it wont take care of you.”

Changing our expectations of “perfect” produce

Image: Dan Tuffs via The Guardian

According to University of Guelph Professor Sylvain Charlebois, imperfect fruits and vegetables that have been rejected by buyers account for about 17% of all food waste in Canada. Produce that does not meet strict aesthetic standards is usually discarded in fields, fed to livestock or dropped directly into landfills, which also wastes the energy and resources that were put into growing the food. However, the blame should  not be placed on farmers, as redirecting food to food banks or other buyers can be logistically or financially challenging. Instead, the issue stems from the unrealistic pressures that farmers face to supply “perfect” fruits and vegetables for consumers.

Initiatives such as Loblaw’s Naturally Imperfect will be a positive step towards raising awareness of unrealistic expectations for fruits and vegetables but some have concerns about how it will impact future market prices. If people become accustomed to buying cheaper produce, the price that farmers can receive for all of their produce may fall. However, if “ugly” produce is treated like its aesthetically pleasing counterpart and sold for the same price, food waste could be reduced drastically.

As any of us who have had a vegetable garden know, not all fruits and vegetables are created the same. Yet, that wonky-shaped cherry tomato is still a mouthwatering addition to a salad, or that red pepper that has not quite lost its green pigment will still make a delicious, healthy snack. In our minds, we know that produce is not naturally uniform and perfect, but we are still presented with rows of impeccable fruits and vegetables at grocery stores. This causes the slightly misshapen or discoloured ones to stand out, which makes us say to ourselves, “that one must not be as good as the rest”. We pass them over in our search for the perfect box of strawberries or bag of apples, and the rest go to waste.

The new rules mean farmers can sell more of their goods and customers have more choice.

Image via CBC

However, new initiatives all around the world are starting to change our expectation of produce. In addition to “Naturally Imperfect,” grassroots start-ups like this group of  Montreal students who sell imperfect produce are reducing food waste, while destigmatizing “ugly” fruits and vegetables.

In an interview with CTV News, Charlebois said that “Mother Nature is not perfect…Over the next few years, people will feel more comfortable and become more educated about what agriculture is all about.”

Although food waste is a multi-dimensional issue, it can be reduced by the direct actions of consumers. We have a lot of power over what is stocked on grocery stores shelves and by demanding “normal” imperfect produce, we can help to change the unrealistic expectations of flawless products and reduce food waste.