Friday, November 27, 2009

What is waste?


I've been debating wether this is an appropriate topic to post on. I don't want people to see it as criticism, and it's not meant that way, but part of my intention with the farm, and the blog, is to lay open to folks the realities of growing food, selling food, and using food, at least in my little world. I feel particularly sensitive having just eaten one of the year's great feasts, perhaps my favorite holiday of the year, the food centric Thanksgiving. Not that much was wasted, but that's a subjective term.

I read mention of a study yesterday that claims, "about 40 percent of all the food produced in the United States is tossed out." This is particularly staggering in a world where about 1 billion don't have enough to eat, and in a country where somewhere around 7 million homes are classified as food insecure by the USDA. I'm guessing that the study was talking about food that had already been harvested and then trucked to wholesale and retail outlets before being redirected to landfills, or at best large scale composting facilities.

When I first started working on farms there was another kind of "waste" that bothered me, food that never got harvested and was left in the fields. This happens for all sorts of reasons; sometimes it's not cosmetically acceptable, sometimes there just isn't a market for it, sometimes weather destroys the crop, usually either heat, hail, or frost. Over the years I've gotten more and more comfortable, to the point where I don't think of it so much as waste anymore, it usually appears to me to be a crop that will be returned to the soil to feed the micro-organisms there that support production of future crops. We grow all kinds of cover crops on the farm for this express purpose. In fact, I frequently worry more about taking too much off the ground, depleting nutrients through over harvesting, than I do about turning crops, or portions of crops back into the soil.

On all of the CSA's I've worked at there are shares every week that don't get picked up for one reason or another. Ideally these are given away to someone else who can enjoy them, but always there are a few that end up back in the compost, ready to be turned back into the soil to feed the next crop. I've come to accept this as inevitable, although I'm always trying to think of ways to limit it. In my mind there's a difference in this sort of food waste than the type of waste I mentioned on a national scale. In a larger scale distribution system the waste is compounded. Food is harvested, then heavily packaged, shipped, sits in massive refrigeration or is processed into ready to eat items. By the time it is "wasted" many of the nutrients are gone already, and on top of that a significant quantity of un recoverable energy has been used getting it to that state before it goes into landfills or is flushed down drains where the remaining nutrients will not be recycled back into the food production system.


So here it is, above is one example of what happens to shares on our farm when they don't get picked up. Five shares were left at Near East on Tuesday. After they had sat for five days I brought them back to my house so that the contents wouldn't rot and make a mess in the bags. On Thursday, after they sat on my porch for two more days I finally got around to cleaning out the contents, and to my amazement more than half the items were in perfectly decent shape, the rest went into my compost pile. All of the roots and leeks were in perfect shape. Most of the greens were not salvageable, but some of the parsley was, as was about 1/2 of the frisee which had blanched beautifully in the dark of the bags. Thanksgiving dinner!

If you're a CSA member reading this, please don't feel bad about occasionally not picking up your share - they always get used in one way or another. If you know you're not going to be able to pick up your share please ask a friend to, or at least let us know so that someone else can use it while it's still at its peak. Any shares that haven't been picked up within two or three days are available to whoever wants them, so please take old shares if you see them and you want them (for yourselves or your friends), even if they're not yours. Just make sure to get the bags back to us!


  1. seems like roots and leek are very long lived, and have held well in the bottom drawer of my fridge often for a few weeks.
    they don't get better, but they reasonably maintain freshness and flavor. that is not to say that freshness isn't always choice...
    thanks for this post, i read your post often and find it very illuminating. m

  2. Thanks for the comment, Michael. One bit that I didn't mention, vegetables in the store are often at least a week more, and at times of the season, root vegetables could be much older having already been in extended cold storage. Even though our vegetables aren't kept in careful climate control, they are very fresh and therefore have more life left in them. For storing vegetable in the fridge, make sure to keep them from drying out (which often shows up as rubberiness in roots). A plastic bag usually works well for this - although excess moisture can also cause rot, so beware of that as well.