Unharvested peppers in the field. Photo by Lisa Johnson.

April 2017 — The Center for Environmental Farming Systems (NC Growing Together’s organizational home) was recently awarded a grant from the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to tackle one of the biggest challenges in our food supply: food waste.

According to a 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, approximately 40% of food is wasted in the US – and shockingly, that number does not include food lost at the farm level.  The grant work will focus on two types of unharvested produce: cosmetically imperfect (does not meet USDA #1 standards for scarring, size, or shape, but is otherwise edible); and produce that meets USDA #1 standards but is left in the field because harvesting costs exceed the market price of the produce.  Figuring out how to “recover” this otherwise wasted produce can both improve growers’ bottom line and make our food system more efficient and sustainable.

The project will take a supply chain approach-with research and education activities along the supply chain from farm through intermediary buyers and commercial food preparers-with the goal of identifying and piloting economically efficient ways to minimize production loss, and, in turn, augment farm revenues.

Minimizing food waste is a challenge along the entire supply chain.  Food distributors and NCGT partners Foster-Caviness and FreshPoint both have programs to market cosmetically imperfect produce and keep them out of the waste stream.  Foster-Caviness, as a produce supplier to institutional food service programs managed by Compass Group, participates in its Imperfectly Delicious Program.  The program seeks to develop markets for edible produce that, for cosmetic reasons, otherwise might be tossed into a compost pile or end up as animal feed.

“We’re hoping to reduce waste in the field and down the supply chain,” says Jason Kampwerth, Foster-Caviness’ Local Buyer and Sustainability Coordinator.  The program is most successful with products (like sweet potatoes) that can be harvested without excessive labor or packaging costs.  Foster-Caviness buys produce that might not otherwise have a market, at a discounted rate (that covers farmers’ labor and packaging costs), then passes the savings on to their customers who want to reduce food waste and support sustainability efforts. “We’re trying to find out what products are the best marketing opportunity,” says Kampwerth of the growing effort.  “The whole point is to get products out of farmers’ fields and find a place for them back in the food chain.”

FreshPoint has its own program, called “Unusual but Usable.”  NCGT partner Seal the Seasons also works with farmers to gather berries and other produce that might go unsold, freezing and bagging the product for sale in a variety of markets.

Lisa Johnson, a CEFS-affiliated graduate student in the Horticultural Science department at NC State University, is studying farm-level food waste. “Growers don’t really have a way to easily measure the amount of marketable and/or edible produce that is left in their fields,” she says.  Her research has created protocols that growers can use to take a sample and extrapolate what is left in their field that might be marketable and/or edible. “Early results show that significant amounts of marketable and/or edible produce are routinely left unharvested. For example, an average over several fields suggests over 12,000 pounds of cucumber per acre and over 4,000 pounds of sweet potato per acre may be available for recovery,” says Johnson.

Johnson recently co-authored a blog post with CEFS Director Dr. Nancy Creamer for The Huffington Post  on the issue.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 NC Growing Together Newsletter.