This past spring, Tule joined the Ugly Juice team as an intern in charge of sourcing new produce and working with farmers and distributors to identify and remedy inefficiencies in the produce industry. This is her reflection. We miss you Tule!!
Diary of an Ugly Juice Intern: Tule
Before learning what Ugly Juice was, I’d always been someone who cared a lot about health and nutrition, and even more about the intersection of food systems with environmental issues. With a single-use culture and obsession with aesthetic perfection, it’s not hard to see that we’re a country of wasters. But I already knew that. What I didn’t know was why.
During my 9 week internship, I cold-called produce wholesalers and farmers in Northern California and slowly but surely learned the ins, outs, and insidiously simple yet dangerous shortcomings of the world of produce.
Here are my 5 greatest findings and surprises encountered during my internship.
1. So Much Goes to Waste
To many this may be a well known fact, and I did come into this internship already knowing the numbers: 20 billion pounds of fresh, perfectly edible produce (almost 50% of all produce grown in the US) goes to waste each year, costing the economy $218 billion, filling up 21% of the country’s landfill space, and wasting about 20% of the nation’s fresh water supply. Yet only after picking up the phone and talking with farmers and wholesalers did I really grasp the magnitude, and really the sadness, of this issue.
The produce industry is in many ways outdated in its systems of operation, leading to inefficiencies that generate a tremendous amount of waste. Without fail, every farmer or distributor I spoke with had their own food waste story. If you imagine all of the farmhouses and wholesale warehouses across the state, right now many of them have entire palettes of delicious produce sitting around, soon to be thrown out. Thinking about the numbers through this lense has definitely inspired a new sense of urgency within me, and I encourage you too to imagine the water, land, labor, and delicious produce behind the statistics.
2. Food Waste isn’t what you’re picturing.
What are you imagining right now when I talk about food waste? Moldy oranges? Wilted lettuce? The discussion around food waste often conjures up images of expired produce, yet in reality that assumption is far from the truth.
The “ugly” produce that Ugly Juice sources is never old, moldy, or compromised in quality in any other way, and truth be told, it’s often not even “ugly”. There are so many inefficiencies and challenges in the produce sourcing chain, and so while some of the produce we source has definitely been rejected for surface imperfections such as deformed shape or minor blemishes, much of our produce is simply the result of limitations inherent to the system.
Farmers and distributors alike struggle with fluctuating harvests, order cancellations, and minimum quantities, and so when such a variable industry is tasked with squeezing into the very defined expectations of quota oriented and recipe-centric restaurants and grocery stores, lots of produce falls by the wayside. And that is where we come in. We work some with farmers, but mostly with the middle men who purchase from farmers and sell to restaurants and grocery stores. We take all the produce that inevitably falls into the holes of the system; sometimes our produce even arrives at our kitchen pre-packaged, and pre-cut, from a produce distributor, exactly like what you would find at your grocery store.
3. The Problem is bad for everyone, and solutions are widely welcome
When you look at most large-scale challenges facing society today, someone or some people almost always stand to gain. Yet the wildly upsetting but equally advantageous aspect of the food waste crisis is that it is simply bad for everyone. Farmers expend the same amount of water, labor, and resources regardless of how much of their harvest they ultimately sell. Similarly, distributors don’t get their money back for the produce they can’t sell to the grocery stores, and grocery stores lose on the fruits and veggies that go bad sitting at the bottom of the pile. And, of course, our planet pays the ultimate price as we work the land almost twice as much as we need. Yet this very predicament is what makes food-waste solutions so welcome. Everyone that I called, representing all steps of the produce sourcing process, always received my calls with excitement and their own assurance that such a service was desperately needed to both save and offer profit for their otherwise wasted produce. I had the easiest sales pitch in the world as we were essentially offering returns to an entire class of produce rendered valueless by our backwards food culture. At the end of the day, fighting food waste is not only the moral but also the economical and logical path forward.
4. Complacency is easy, and might just be our biggest challenge.
Despite the obvious advantages of such a relationship and the initial excitement I almost always hear on the other end of the phone, many of these conversations failed to amount to anything. Ultimately, I found that despite the many positives and minimal drawbacks, many farmers and distributors weren’t willing to follow through, letting me know that while it seemed like a great opportunity, they didn’t want to deal with adding anything to their system.
Food waste is a challenge wrought with complacency and status-quo bias. Solutions abound but the willingness to take that first step is lacking, regardless how great the ultimate payoff. Distributors who were initially hesitant but ultimately joined our program transitioned seamlessly and quickly adopted a produce-saving mindset. They grew to recognize the lost revenue of each tossed item and reached out consistently to turn profit on the produce that just weeks prior had been without a second thought. Our food system is stuck in default, and so my conversations with the individuals across the industry make me wonder, how can we change the default option so that bringing value to all that neglected produce is not only profitable but also the path of least resistance?
5. Here’s How You Can Help
Vote with your wallet and purchase ugly and leftover produce, both in the brands you support and by picking the ugly produce off the shelf. Support food systems with a more efficient and sustainable chain of operations, such as farmers markets and grocery stores/distributors that donate all they can’t sell. Eat seasonally and recognize that we need to adapt to a consumer model in which the farmers and their harvests come first, and then we adapt, not the other way around. Read more about waste fighting tips here!
After 9 short weeks, I’m leaving this experience with both an appreciation for the opportunity but also a strong hope for the future of food. Companies like Ugly Juice are taking a critical look at the state of our food systems, and so long as we do too, and continue to support those who are working towards a more sustainable future, the possibilities of getting there are endless.