Rescuing Imperfect Produce
“People only want to buy perfect produce,” says Mike Meyer, Produce Manager at the Lunds & Byerlys grocery location in Roseville.
Shopping Mike’s department is testimony to this fact. Bathed in inviting light and arranged perfectly in their displays, every pineapple, tomato and head of broccoli appears camera-ready. It’s a very comfortable and even inspiring shopping experience, giving the consumer ideas for all sorts of healthy salads, stir-fries and smoothies to be made later at home.
But what happens to the tomato that’s starting to wrinkle? The broccoli that’s beginning to look a little limp? Each morning, Mike or the first employee to arrive in the produce department inspects every display, removing any fruit or vegetable that isn’t to Lunds & Byerlys exacting standards. This includes inspecting bagged items, like lettuce and baby carrots; and other packaged items like bowls of pre-cut fruit. A tomato just starting to wrinkle and other imperfect food items are placed in boxes and carted away, out of sight of the day’s shoppers.
Years ago, this food was often treated as a necessary loss, and placed in a dumpster. Today, as part of the Retail Food Rescue Program, the food is stored in Lunds & Byerlys’ backroom shelves or cooler, where it waits for pick-up by a local food shelf. Other departments at the store, including dairy, meat, and the bakery do the same thing. This process is repeated at hundreds of grocery stores, of nearly every name and size, across the state each day.
In some cases, Second Harvest Heartland serves as a liaison between the store and food shelf; offering training, support and oversight to ensure mutual satisfaction with the program. At other stores, Second Harvest Heartland trucks pick-up the food directly, and also deliver it to local food shelves and meal programs. Staff members of Second Harvest Heartland broker each of these relationships, connecting each food shelf and grocery partner with a process that works best for them.
“To get unsold food where it can be used is a great feeling,” said Mike. “Instead of throwing this food away, we can get it to people who can use it.” He’s helped lead produce rescue efforts for about two years at the Roseville location, and before that, at the Highland Park location in St. Paul. Mike and his coworkers take care to only send fruits and vegetables in good condition, food that they would be pleased to eat themselves.
Though he values each donation, Mike is especially pleased to know that bowls of unsold, cut fruit are going to hungry households. “It’s really good stuff, very high quality,” he says. Mike also points out the packages of cherry tomatoes nearing their sell-by dates that the store will be donating, commenting on their “gorgeous” appearance.
What could surpass Mike’s pride in the Retail Food Rescue Program? Maybe only the joy that a hungry family will experience a day or two later as they take a bite of cut melon, or fresh tomato—perhaps the first fresh fruit or vegetable they’ll eat this week. The family doesn’t know it, but Mike and his coworkers selected this food just for them, sending along a smile and their best wishes.