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.”