Ugly Produce: The 2.0 of Dumpster Diving

John Pandol

John Pandol

Dumpster diving is an activity where the hungry and the homeless sort through trash dumpsters to salvage food‭. ‬Now‭, ‬there’s an app for that‭. ‬Over the Internet, I can hire folks to sort through the surplus and ugly produce‭ ‬and deliver it to my door for a modest fee‭. ‬Folks pay for produce that would be left in the field‭, ‬culled out in processing or end up in a dumpster‭.

My urban-living daughter called one day to tell me about a home delivery service for surplus and otherwise ugly produce‭. ‬Go to the website‭, ‬order by Monday and a box will show up during the week‭. ‬“Go for it and take pictures‭. ‬Do you have a kitchen scale‭? ‬No‭? ‬Buy one‭,‬”‭ ‬I said‭. ‬

Every grower should be interested in the ugly produce trend‭ ‬if it is indeed a trend‭. ‬After all‭, ‬one of our main metrics for profitability is yield‭. ‬Using and finding value in product that was previously thrown away is one way to increase yield‭. ‬Perhaps consumers are more tolerant to some defects than USDA-grade standards or supermarket private standards would indicate‭. ‬The shoppers of yesteryear cut up crates of produce to put up preserves‭, ‬jams, and jellies‭. ‬Those shoppers would have a different view of fruits and vegetables than the young cooks who think mason jars are for hipster cocktails‭.

My daughter lives in a small apartment and has a busy professional and social life‭; ‬driving and parking are a chore‭, ‬and grocery‭ ‬stores tend to be expensive‭. ‬If she comes from Los Angeles for the weekend‭, ‬she buys more affordable groceries in Bakersfield‭, ‬CA‭.  ‬Scratch cooking is a weekend activity‭. ‬Sunday is cooking day like Monday used to be laundry day‭, ‬so a delivery late in the‭ ‬week is spot on‭. ‬My daughter’s motivation is pure frugality‭. ‬If it’s cheap and reduces trips to the store‭, ‬it’s worthwhile‭.‬

The website’s order page had a prominent feature measuring carbon reduction‭. ‬My daughter was more focused on how much broccoli cost than her‭ ‬impact on any environmental metric‭. ‬The‭ ‬“surplus”‭ ‬onions and broccoli purchased and delivered were fine‭. ‬The cantaloupe from Tucson‭, ‬AZ‭, ‬actually a branded proprietary melon‭, ‬was good‭. ‬The organic mini watermelon was tasteless‭.  ‬Nine pounds of produce for‭ $‬6.15‭ ‬plus a‭ $‬4‭ ‬box fee plus a‭ $‬4.99‭ ‬delivery fee‭. ‬The verdict‭? ‬Not enough items available to avoid a trip to the store‭. ‬After the fees‭, $‬15‭ ‬for 6‭ ‬pounds of produce is not really cheap‭. ‬The only way it would make sense is if one attaches value to the supposed environmental benefits‭.‬

Distribution costs are a larger part of total food cost than the general public realizes‭. ‬In the real world‭, ‬there is no free delivery‭. ‬The lower the density of the customer base‭, ‬the higher the value of the product required to make delivery viable‭. ‬Amazon‭ ‬bought Whole Foods Markets‭. ‬It did not offer USDA any money to deliver a weekly food basket to all SNAP recipients in food deserts‭.‬

One sells benefits and not features‭. ‬So which consumer benefit will drive ugly produce demand‭? ‬Price point‭? ‬Environmental benefit‭?

‬Solidarity with the hungry and the homeless‭? ‬We shall see‭.‬

John Pandol is director of special projects at Pandol Brothers in Delano, CA. His expertise is turning crops into value. A trade-show junkie and a serial store checker, he spends 120-plus days on the road observing the reality of the produce trade — he freely shares these observations in print, online and in public forums. Pandol finds euphoria in all “food experiences.”‬




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