How one Ontario company is turning ugly food into a beautiful thing

ANALYSIS: Supermarkets throw out perfectly good produce by the tonne — just because it’s unattractive. Through Flashfoodbox, consumers can rescue it, writes Corey Mintz
By Corey Mintz - Published on October 18, 2018
misshapen carrots
In Canada, we waste about half the food we produce, thanks to a variety of factors at every stage of the process. (iStock.com/moisseyev)

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Congratulations, Canada. We are just as good as the United States at something — wasting food. Sure, we waste only 13 million tonnes of food a year, compared to their whopping 126 million. But per capita, we’re on par, with about 400 kilos a person.

Canada, Mexico, and the United States waste enough food every year to feed 260 million people, according to Characterization and Management of Food Loss and Waste in North America, a 2017 white-paper report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (part of the environmental wing of NAFTA).

As children, we are all taught to feel bad about wasting food. We are told that people are starving in the world (usually in some other part of the globe — we tend to avoid focusing on the food insecurity caused by income inequality in our own country). But we’re not really told what to do about it. And it’s hard to know how to help without also understanding how food ends up being wasted.

In Canada, we waste about half the food we produce, thanks to a variety of factors at every stage of the process: harvest (grading standards for size and quality, low market prices, labour shortages), processing (cold-chain deficiencies, damage, trimming), distribution (inaccurate supply and demand forecasting, delays during border inspections), retail (overstocking, order minimums, rejection of shipments, market oversaturation), food service (plate composition, marketing practices, expansive menu options), and home use (we all know the factors involved here).

Many of us try to compost as much as we can, to donate unused non-perishable items to food drives, to avoid buying food in excessive quantities, to use up leftovers, and so on. And it feels good to do our small part. But we can do more than simply reducing our personal food waste: we can contribute to food rescue.

That’s the term organizations such as Second Harvest use to refer to the practice of diverting food destined to go straight from the producer to the landfill into the hands of hungry people. And I recently had a positive experience with a company that is turning it into an option for home cooks.

To understand this element of food waste, of food that never even reaches the shelves, we have to think about the processing stage. After a fruit or vegetable is harvested from the field and cooled by a blast chiller, it is sorted. Lettuce is tied up; rapini is bound in bundles. Most smaller fruits and vegetables are sorted by size and quality. There are two categories for this, numbers 1 and 2. Number 1 peppers are all the same size and have no defects at all. The peppers in a case of number 2s will each have some small blemish — nothing that can’t be trimmed away. But not photo ready. Supermarket shelves demand uniform size and flawless quality. So there is no number 3. Everything else gets composted or sent to a landfill, a waste of goods, labour, and energy.

And often, because consumer sales are subject to wild swings, new shipments show up at the supermarket before the previous shipment can even be placed in the aisle. So if a store isn’t totally on top of stock management or if it lacks refrigeration space, perfectly good produce is often thrown away — bought, shipped, received, and junked before it even hits the shelves. In my Chinatown neighbourhood, if you cruise the alleys, you’ll find flats (the equivalent of a dozen cases) of squash, eggplant, or cabbage rejected by the supermarket. There are some elderly women who sort through this and pick out the best pieces, adding them to the small piles of chilies and herbs they sell while sitting on the streets — their own form of food rescue.

The recently launched Flashfoodbox combines this type of produce — fresh and nutritious but lacking the perfection and uniformity demanded by supermarket shoppers — with the sort of seasonal-produce delivery boxes that have been popular for the last decade. It’s marketed and sold as “ugly food” and goes for $26.50 a week.

To test drive it, I had them deliver a box. Then I called them to make sure they hadn’t made a mistake: the food they’d delivered looked too good.

I cook at a shelter on Sundays, and the stuff I received from Flashfood wasn’t all that different from the food we get from Second Harvest. So I took the contents there: two red peppers, two large tomatoes, two red onions, two sweet potatoes, two pears, two pints of very sweet cherry tomatoes, and two pints of mini bell peppers.

The shelter had also received three boxes of the most pristine oyster mushrooms I’ve ever seen. I combined them with macaroni and ground beef to make an impromptu version of beef stroganoff. I roasted the sweet peppers, sautéed the onions, and built the sweet potatoes and tomatoes into a thick sauce. Hopefully, it was a hit.

Supporting a small company is always good. And diverting food from the landfill is another win. But what’s more valuable than all that is voting with your dollars. The Flashfoodbox is a new iteration of a previous initiative from founder Josh Domingues. The earlier version, Flashfood, was an app that allowed consumers to purchase surplus food through their phones and then pick it up at the supermarket. Domingues had a distribution deal with Longo’s, which the grocery chain ultimately discontinued.

The way the market operates now, it may not be profitable for supermarket chains to adopt food-rescue practices. But the CED report advises that we increase the marketability of second-grade produce and accept and integrate it into retail settings.

That’s why consumer choice — and options such as ugly-food boxes — matter. A handful of retailers dominate food sales in Canada. Taking a dollar out of their pocket is the only way to persuade them that they have more to gain from adapting to new ways than from sticking with wasteful habits.

P.S. I ate the pears.

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