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The Next Bite: The Store

Ignore the expiration date

How ‘sell by’ standards promote food waste

An illustration of fruits with protest signs Cristina Martín Recasens for the Boston Globe

THE ASIAN PEARS were comically lopsided, the kiwis were surprisingly small, and the bell peppers might have been more at home in one of Edward Weston’s famous photographs of unusual vegetables than on display at Market Basket. All were perfectly edible, but while they now sat on my kitchen counter — along with an undersized pineapple, some mismatched potatoes, and a surplus head of romaine — these fruits and vegetables came very close to being among the estimated 20 percent of agricultural produce that gets thrown out or plowed under before it hits supermarkets, often for purely cosmetic reasons.

“Sometimes it’s a carrot that’s just a little bit bent,” says Emily Frigon, market coordinator with Hungry Harvest, the Baltimore-based service that delivered this rescued haul to my door in a discounted subscription box. “And every now and then something is rejected because there’s dirt on it.”

Founded in 2014, Hungry Harvest is now one of at least half a dozen similar startups — including Bay Area heavy-hitter Imperfect Produce, recently valued at $180 million — mining this mountain of “ugly” food for profit. It’s a long-overlooked business opportunity that may also have profound implications for feeding a growing population without expanding agriculture’s already enormous environmental footprint.

Globally, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, more than a third of food goes to waste, a loss that contributes 8 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide from the fossil fuels used to grow and process it and the methane produced once it hits landfills. In the United States, food waste — some 40 percent of what we produce — sucks $218 billion out of the economy and $1,800 out of the average household’s annual budget.

Leftover food — several tons of it — sits piled up before being processed into “bio-slurry” at a facility in New York in August. Stephen Groves/Associated Press
Leftover food — several tons of it — sits piled up before being processed into “bio-slurry” at a facility in New York in August.

“Meanwhile we have 42 million Americans who are food insecure,” says Chris Cochran, executive director of ReFED, or Rethink Food Waste through Economics and Data, a consortium of nonprofits and industry. “It’s a crazy paradox.”

The good news is, unlike with many pressing social and environmental problems, cutting down on food waste doesn’t require overcoming entrenched political opposition. Waste, after all, hurts everyone’s bottom line, from farmers to retailers to consumers. But it will mean changing how we shop, cook, and eat, whether that means using up leftovers, reconsidering expiration dates, or becoming a little less picky about the aesthetics of our fruits and veggies.

Food gets wasted for a host of reasons, including inefficient logistics, unpredictable growing conditions (which can lead to unwanted bumper crops), and, in the developing world, inadequate infrastructure and storage. But in the United States, the biggest problem is you and me, and the unconscious prejudices and habits that influence what we think of as good enough to eat.

That was one of the lessons learned by Daily Table when the nonprofit, which aims to provide affordable healthy food to families in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, announced plans to open its first store in Dorchester. The initial concept was simple: Take perfectly good products that have recently passed their sell-by dates, and offer them at a discount to people who might otherwise have trouble affording nutritious food. But while products like pasta, crackers, and canned vegetables are usually tasty and safe long beyond the date stamped on the package, the idea of selling them to low-income Bostonians proved controversial.

“There was a vocal minority in the focus groups who worried, are we taking rich people’s trash and selling it to the poor?” says Daily Table’s chief operating officer, Michael Malmberg. “There’s not a lot of science behind code dates, but there’s a stigma that we all have, having been indoctrinated our entire lives.”

Today, Daily Table, which recently opened a second store in Roxbury and is looking to expand further, sells food that is only approaching its sell-by date. Even this is commonly thrown out months beforehand, Malmberg notes.

Jemal Monteiro moves produce before the grand opening of The Daily Table in Dorchester in January. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Jemal Monteiro moves produce before the grand opening of The Daily Table in Dorchester in January.

Reforming sell-by dates (or “use-by,” “enjoy-by,” “best-by”— the terminology itself is confusing, and that’s part of the problem) is one of the biggest steps we could take to prevent food waste, says Cochran, of ReFED. Since state laws vary, ReFED supports a proposed federal law that would replace visible sell-by dates with the phrase “Best if Used By,” followed by “Manufacturer’s Suggestion Only,” with “Expires On” required only for the minority of products — such as meat — that the FDA says actually carry a risk of food-born illness. Meanwhile, about 30 percent of US manufacturers have already adopted ReFED-backed voluntary date standards, and some 80 percent are expected to have done so by next year.

“Date labels are going to become much more consistent for consumers,” Cochran says, and according to ReFED’s estimates, standardized dates have the potential to divert nearly 800 million pounds of food a year from landfills.

Food waste won’t end with policy changes, however. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, which published a 2012 report, “Wasted,” that helped kick-start the recent interest in solving the problem, more than 40 percent of food waste occurs at home, where we leave last week’s takeout to meet its slimy end alongside wilted bunches of kale at the back of the refrigerator.

“We often don’t realize how much food we’re wasting, and how much it costs us, and that’s a huge blind spot,” says NRDC senior advocate JoAnne Berkenkamp. “We tend to be aspirational shoppers — we may want to do more cooking, but end up going out, and those ingredients go to waste.”

Consumer education is key, Berkenkamp says, whether that’s via school garden programs (“When you grow food, you have a different relationship to it,” she enthuses), social media campaigns designed to encourage smarter shopping and meal planning, or efforts by grocers like Walmart to inform customers about the money they’re pouring down the garbage disposal.

Hawking ugly produce and over-the-hill packaged food has a role as well, and not only because getting people to eat it uses up food that would otherwise go to waste. Start-ups like Hungry Harvest and grocery store programs like the “The Misfits,” a discount line of funny-looking fruits and veggies available in stores including Hannaford and Price Chopper, may also help make consumers aware of food waste and teach them that food needn’t be perfect to be perfectly good.

A sign at The Daily Table advertises squash for 49 cents a pound. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
A sign at The Daily Table advertises squash for 49 cents a pound.

“There will always be something of a natural tendency for people to choose the best-looking fruits and vegetables,” Berkenkamp says, “but what tastes best is not necessarily the shiniest.”

I thought of Berkenkamp’s admonishment as my family and I dug into our latest shipment of ugly and unwanted fruits and vegetables, feeling virtuous for having rescued them from the landfill. In the future, will we learn to let go of our prejudice against imperfect produce, our aversion to leftovers, and our fear of foods condemned as inedible by arbitrary dates?

Maybe. But then we’ll also have to figure out a way to overcome the fickle appetites of preschoolers, I realized later. . . as I guiltily slipped a half-eaten asymmetrical pear into the trash.

Editors Dante Ramos, David Scharfenberg, and Alex Kingsbury

Design and development Elaina Natario

Design Director Heather Hopp-Bruce

Audience engagement Heather Ciras

Illustration Cristina Martín Recasens

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