Bad Produce and Food Saviours

The food saviours. I love their intentions, but often hate their execution. You know them — you’ve seen them writing passionate manifestos on the internet, holding community meetings, writing books. They’re the people who recognise that there’s a serious access problem when it comes to getting food in low-income communities, and want to address the issue. They want to eradicate food deserts and ensure that all people have access to reasonably-priced food that includes a wide spectrum of ingredients, with a focus on fresh produce and other perishable products, good bulk ingredients, and so forth. They want to build a world where everyone can eat in the way they want to eat, where everyone can feed their families, where health problems related to food insecurity and poor nutrition become a thing of the past.

These are all things that I am on board with, as should be the case with anyone who cares about the rest of society. Put bluntly, no one should be starving anywhere in the world. People in low-income communities shouldn’t be facing shortages of food caused by finances and physical inaccessibility. But the issues of food, poverty, and access are more complicated than the food saviours make them out to be.

It’s not just about installing urban farms (although that’s a great initiative), or teaching people to farm at home (although for people who can grow things at home, that’s great). It’s not just about expanding the number of markets in a community and pressuring them to widen their offerings (although that is fantastic). It’s not just about pushing markets to carry culturally-appropriate foods and to consider measures like offering pre-chopped produce, triple-washed greens, and so forth to help people prepare meals easily and efficiently (although these are great initiatives). It’s not just about expanding access to food assistance programs (again, great), or making school lunches more nutritious and expanding school nutrition programs (something that helps fight food insecurity among some of the most vulnerable in society). It’s not just about making it easier to prepare food and about lifting the responsibility for meals from women (although these measures are also important to integrate). It’s also not just about paying a living wage so people haveĀ timeĀ to gather ingredients and cook, and the funds to support their families (again, yes, do this).

Sometimes, it’s about more fundamental, basic issues that are actually rather complex to deal with, and are overlooked by the food saviours, who tend to stick to narrow, limited zones of understanding — the urban farm enthusiast who refuses to acknowledge time restrictions, for example, the grocery store zealot who doesn’t understand that affordability is a complex issue in many communities. These groups often don’t work well together and don’t pool their knowledge and resources to address food insecurity in the US, which means that they are doubling up over each other, alienating communities with their lack of understanding, and confusing the very issues they’re trying to fix.

Sometimes it’s about something as simple as rotten produce.

When I take a stroll through my own grocery store, which is definitely aiming at the high-end, yuppie crowd, there’s something I notice: A great deal of the produce is actually in pretty poor condition. It’s not uncommon for me to find wilted, withered, unhappy-looking produce even when I know the truck has just come. It’s also not rare for me to notice mold, mildew, and rotten spots on produce, even as I see the produce stockers roaming through with their carts to pick the worst of the produce and remove it for (I hope) composting. In short, the produce department is actually often pretty bad.

Which creates some serious limitations on my ability to cook with fresh produce. While I love produce and it’s one of the best parts of my diet, I can’t and won’t cook with poor-quality produce. I’m not just talking about the produce that’s likely to be low on flavor and uninspiring to eat, but produce that has the potential to potentially sicken me. I’m not eating rotten fruit. I won’t buy moldy shallots. While it’s sometimes possible to cut away bad parts and use the rest, I’m not going to do that if I don’t know what caused the rot (and thus, if it might be on the rest of the fruit and could make me sick), and because I don’t see why I should pay for produce by weight and then cut half the weight off to get to the portion that is edible. (There’s difference between, say, buying an apple and accepting that while I pay by weight, I will be removing the core to eat it and buying an apple and then having to cut half of it away to get rid of rotten spots.)

These aren’t just personal objections. I think they’re pretty reasonable. And I think that many produce buyers would prefer not to eat produce that is rotten, mouldy, or otherwise disgusting, for reasons of health and personal preference. If a high-end grocery store can’t even keep its produce section under control, given high prices (and thereby the ability to pay a premium at the distributor for fresh ingredients), tight product control, and high sales volume, how can smaller stores serving low-income clientele hope to manage their produce sections? I’d argue that small, localised stores are key to getting food into underserved communities — but that by their very nature, there’s a much higher risk of poor produce found in their aisles.

This is a supply problem, it’s a health problem, and it’s a demand problem. So tell me, food saviours: How do you propose fixing it?

Image: Rotten tangerines, Kate, Flickr.