July 1, 2009

Food Waste Up Close: Sorting Cucumbers

Why waste something so good?

This past week, we made a trip out to Parker Farms in Oak Grove, VA. The goal of our visit was to get a glimpse at how our new program, Glean for the City, will work to bring fresh produce into our pantry. (We’ll be gleaning corn from Parker Farms in July -- see here for information about this new project.)

Besides growing corn, Parker Farms also runs a sorting and distribution operation for crops from local farms. We were fortunate enough to visit the farm on a cucumber-sorting day, and General Manager Rod Parker took the time to show us the entire process.

To be sorted, every cucumber is loaded onto a long conveyer belt. The cucumbers are then power-washed with water to remove any residual dirt or pesticides. After being sorted by hand, the “imperfect” cucumbers are placed on a separate conveyer belt headed towards a large dump truck.

Cucumbers are rejected for several reasons:

A. They are too curvy for efficient packaging.
B. They have a small white spot at one end, usually only one square inch in size. This is caused by the tip being buried and missing out on photosynthesis. 97% of the cuke is green and edible, but grocery stores still won’t take them.
C. They have small cracks that keep them from the market. Rod notes that, while cucumbers do have a short shelf life, the cracks don’t affect taste or ripeness.

Farmers need shoppers to buy the cucumbers they’re selling, and the market demands aesthetically pleasing produce. Looking at the truck of rejected produce, Rod told us that, “90% of the cucumbers in that dump truck taste perfectly fine and have the same nutrition. They just don’t look good enough to be sold.”

The rejected cucumbers are driven back into the fields and deposited on the ground to become fertilizer. Mr. Parker estimates that, “we dump thousands upon thousands of them every time we sort.” From our experience, it seems that many farmers would like to donate unsellable food to pantries, but they are already strapped for time and resources and don’t have the capacity to take on that additional burden.

There is sometimes a tax break for donated farm produce, but most often they are capped at 10% of market value. Given the difficulty of trucking produce to yet another destination, it’s not enough of an incentive. So the produce goes to waste. But this summer, we’ll be rescuing at least some of it so we can bring it to the people who need it most.


Marie said...

Helping to save our farms and share the good food -- Yay! Go "Glean for the City"!

Matt Siemer said...

Thanks, Marie! We're going to need all those warm wishes to get this new program up and running!

Caren said...

When I lived in China I noticed that there was only "ugly" veggies for sale and NO ONE CARED, and they tasted just as yummy. Which then led to a sad realization that our society's level of superficiality has affected what produce we buy.