Saturday I joined about 25 Bay Area food bloggers to volunteer for an afternoon at the San Francisco Food Bank. It was organized by Sam and Amy, and it was a lot of fun. I got to meet writers whose dinnerware I can recognize but not their faces, while ever so slightly helping people who wonder about where their next meal is coming from in a less philosophical way than I do.
For some reason I had imagined we'd be preparing and serving food. Then it was explained to us that the Food Bank is "the Costco of the food charities": it supplies the bulk materials that places like Glide Church, Delancey Street, and Project Open Hand distribute to the hungry. Our assigned tasks were to pack apples and oranges into boxes, then after a break we bagged frozen ears of corn. Despite the fact that we were all chatting up a storm — the No. 1 topic seemed to be how badly food writing pays — we were apparently efficient enough to finish our work way ahead of schedule.
The apples and oranges we were packing had supposedly been donated because they were cosmetically challenged, or smaller or bigger than the standard sizes grocery stores want. Some retailers give their rejects to hunger charities, others trash them, and Berkeley Bowl composts its unsellable stuff, according to John Birdsall's excellent feature in the East Bay Express last year about food waste in the Bay Area and three groups that recycle it in various ways. In England, there's a movement afoot to educate consumers about "ugly fruit."
On Saturday we discarded the fruits that were definitely past their prime, badly bruised or — in the oranges' case — moldy, by throwing them into a special bin for the purpose. (Turns out some food bloggers have really crappy aim, and I have the splattered jeans to prove it.) The rejected apples and oranges were destined for a nearby farm, presumably for compost or pig feed.
But mostly the apples and oranges looked pretty much like the fruit I buy at the farmers market. Actually, better. In the winter, by the time I get to the Berkeley Tuesday one, it's dark. Ever tried picking out produce by lamplight?
Grocery stores throw away literally tons of blemished produce because they think no one will buy it. And I suppose they're right — if you're standing in front of a giant bin of apples at Safeway, would you choose the bruised one? That's why farmers and the food industry have spent a lot of time breeding fruits and vegetables to be uniform in size and color and that will withstand the rigors of shipping.
My husband told me about a show he watched recently on the History Channel, about how processing technology changed the food landscape in this country. I knew some of this already — that some historians think a major factory in the North's victory over the South in the Civil War is that the Yankees had canning technology, which allowed them to have a much longer and robust food-supply chain for the troops. The Potato Non Grata also told me about the guy who first developed a machine that would cut pineapple to fit perfectly in the newfangled tin cans, then figured out he ought to develop a rounder pineapple that would mimic the can's shape as closely as possible and thus generate less waste.
What's good for industrialized suppliers is not necessarily good for the consumer. In our quest for bright shiny identical widgets instead of, say, apples, we've sacrificed a lot of taste. The frost-singed "crocodile spinach" we got in our last CSA box was way too ugly to ever have been bought in a store, but it tasted just as darkly nutritious when I turned it into a soufflé.
And yet…there was a lot of debate at first as we packed the apples, trying to figure out what might make a fruit undesirable even to the hungry. Would beggars be choosers when it came to big bruises, so to speak? What about worm holes? Ultimately, most of us seemed OK with the standard that cosmetic blemishes were OK; rot was not.
Another thing I was pondering as I dodged the rotten oranges flying toward the rubbish bin were the pallets of boxes of Pop Tarts, Doritos, and Spongebob SquarePants snack packs presumably donated by their manufacturers. We weren't dealing with those, but I couldn't help wondering whether the Food Bank felt at all conflicted about accepting those particular handouts. If you're hungry, do the source of the calories matter? Do community food charities have a responsibility to provide only foods with actual nutritional value?
I don't have the answers, but I did enjoy the chance to step outside my privileged-eating existence long enough to even think about such questions. Thanks, Sam and Amy.