Pears with cosmetic blemishes such as "limb rub" -- surface imperfections that have nothing to do with quality or taste -- wind up in a different market category. Cynthia E. Wood/KQED
Pears with cosmetic blemishes such as "limb rub" -- surface imperfections that have nothing to do with quality or taste -- wind up in a different market category. (Cynthia E. Wood/KQED)

Fighting Climate Change and Food Waste With 'Imperfect Produce'

Fighting Climate Change and Food Waste With 'Imperfect Produce'

If you fit the public media stereotype, you probably pride yourself on caring about the environment, right? Maybe you’re letting your lawn go brown, or trying to drive less. Some experts say there’s another way you can be environmentally friendly: Stop wasting food.

From the farm to the fridge, it’s estimated that 40 percent of what could be eaten just isn’t, and that can impact climate change.

To find out more, I go to the Sacramento Delta, where pear season has just begun. I’m talking to Chuck Baker, a lifelong pear farmer who manages a ranch for Rivermaid Trading Co., and I'm trying to stay out of the way of workers literally running from tree to tree with ladders picking the biggest pears.

“We have a lot of wind in the delta,” Baker says. “That’s why we have very good fruit, because of those cool delta breezes at night.”

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However, he says that helpful wind can also cause what’s called limb rub. He points out a fat pear, with small marks on the skin.

An example of "limb rub" on an otherwise perfect pear.
An example of "limb rub" on an otherwise perfect pear. (Cynthia E. Wood/KQED)

“This is just from the wind swinging the pear against another pear or limb, and it makes a mark,” he explains. “The industry in the past has set standards very high, where they don’t allow those marks. A lot of that fruit has good value, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just a little cosmetically challenged, like all of us.”

As workers dump loads of pears into bins on a tractor, produce broker Ron Clark laments these standards.

“It’s not just in our food, it’s in our lives,” he says. “We have a lot of images sent to us of thin models, perfect-looking Hollywood faces. But that’s not reality, is it?”

Clark is co-founder of a new startup called Imperfect Produce, which is working to change consumers' perceptions and find homes for “cosmetically challenged” produce. They’re starting with low-cost CSA boxes and a grocery store partnership (more about that at the end of this story). He takes me to a nearby packing shed, where the fruit gets washed and then sorted by lines of women quickly separating imperfect pears from marketable ones, which get hand-wrapped and packaged.

Workers sort pears at the Rivermaid Trading Company packing shed in Lodi.
Workers sort pears at the Rivermaid Trading Company packing shed in Lodi. (Cynthia E. Wood/KQED)

“Twenty percent of fresh produce that’s grown for the fresh market never makes it to human consumption,” Clark says. That means it doesn’t make it onto grocery shelves, or in canned products, or even juices. “It either gets plowed back into the field, composted or ends up in landfill.”

So, what’s the big deal about food waste? Jonathan Bloom, author of "American Wasteland," says, “We’re basically aiding climate change from the food we throw away.” First, there’s water, certainly among the hottest topics in California. “About one-quarter of fresh water usage is embedded in food that is ultimately thrown out,” he says.

Then there’s oil. “There’s a tremendous amount of oil that goes into producing our food," Bloom says. The best estimates he’s seen are that 4 percent of all U.S. energy consumption is used to produce food we don’t use -- energy for on-farm tractors, transportation and refrigeration.

All the wasted food goes to the landfill, and it decomposes without air, creating methane, says Bloom. While there are lots of questions about how to definitively and consistently collect data relating to food waste, Bloom says, “What we do know is that the two largest creators of waste are farms and households.”

Meg Burritt, director of wellness and sustainability at Raley's.
Meg Burritt, director of wellness and sustainability at Raley's. (Cynthia E. Wood/KQED)

Enter Meg Burritt. She’s the director of wellness and sustainability for the grocery store chain Raley’s, which has over 100 stores in Northern California and Nevada.

“There are a couple of problems that I think we as grocers haven’t addressed in our history as an institution. One of them is food waste,” she says.

Another is helping people on a budget access enough nutritious produce. She didn’t know exactly what part Raley’s could play, until last fall when she saw a catchy video produced by French grocer Intermarché, in which the store specifically marketed “ugly produce.” The video went viral, and Intermarché reported spectacular sales. A similar program started in a huge Canadian chain.

“I’m an optimist, so I thought: Well, they’re doing it in France, they’re doing it in Canada, we can definitely do it here in the States,” says Burritt.

Raley’s has partnered with Imperfect, and just last weekend they launched a pilot program in 10 California stores. They targeted neighborhoods where customers may have tighter budgets, or where there aren’t a lot of options for buying produce.

I visit a Raley’s in the Gold Country town of Auburn. The display of what they’re calling Real Good produce is just steps from the door, and it’s piled high with pears and bell peppers. Regular customer Rich Purdom gravitates toward the bright red elongated peppers.

Mike Selepec, produce team leader at Raley's, holds a $2 "perfect" red pepper next to "imperfect" peppers, which sell for $1.19 per pound.
Mike Selepec, produce team leader at Raley's, holds a $2 "perfect" red pepper next to two "imperfect" peppers, which sell for $1.19 per pound. (Cynthia E. Wood/KQED)

“I go by color when I buy vegetables,” he says.

I point out that the prices are lower -- about 75 cents each, compared with $2 for a regular pepper -- because of how they look.

“Funny-looking? That doesn’t bother me,” he says. “They’re going to get chopped up in fajitas. It all ends up in the same spot, right?”

Kate Johnson makes a beeline for the pears, which she’s loading into a paper bag. She’s been shopping here 35 years, and read about the Real Good produce program in the newspaper.

“They mentioned they’re going to use fruit you may not usually buy because it’s a little smaller or a little blemished,” she says, “but we know it’s perfectly all right.”

When I say that not everyone knows that, she laughs. “Well, they should be a little more informed!”

The pilot program will last about 90 days, starting with pears, plums and red and green peppers and then moving to other produce. If the Auburn store is any indication, it’s going well so far. It has sold more imperfect produce than expected in the first week.

This piece is part of the series California Foodways. Stories in the series about food and climate change are funded by a grant from Invoking the Pause.