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Give Produce a Second Chance

In my last post I listed five reasons for food waste on the farm. As I said then, some waste is unavoidable. However, for the fruits and vegetables that can be used, farmers and other companies across North Carolina and the U.S. are finding ways to get this formerly wasted food onto someone’s plate.

Let me step back and say most of the produce I am talking about here is good quality, but not the higher quality required by grocery stores, wholesalers, and other buyers selling fresh fruits and vegetables. We call these seconds in the produce industry. Finding uses for this produce has been a great way to cut food waste at the farm level.

Here are five ways farmers and other companies are cutting food waste:

1.  Creating new markets

When we started growing sweet potatoes, the smallest roots were left in the field becaue no one wanted to buy them. Flash forward a few years and the same sweet potatoes we used to leave behind are now sold in grocery stores as petite or smalls. An entire new market demand was created for these smaller sweet potoates, which are often purchased by restaurants and homeowners who want a smaller tater.

There are also companies creating markets for ugly fruit, or fruit that doesn’t meet the cosmetic standards of the traditional fresh markets like grocery stores. This fruit is still great for eating, but it may not be the desired size or have too many blemishes (holes, scabs, etc.). I heard a presentation from one North Carolina company that has created a market for this produce, selling community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes with what seconds. You may have seen the company, Hungry Harvest, featured on this episode of Shark Tank.

2.  Processing

Processed food may have a bad reputation, but it is a good use for seconds. We have companies in North Carolina that take these sweet potatoes and process them into a variety of products including canned and pureed sweet potatoes, flour, vodka, fries, and even dehydrated sweet potatoes that are used as an ingredient in dog food. We’re also home to Mount Olive Pickle Company, the top pickle brand in the U.S. The company started when the founder wanted a use for cucumbers from nearby farms that weren’t sold to the fresh markets.

3.  Freezing

Frozen Blueberries
Blueberries frozen using IQF machine.

One challenge with produce is that we can’t grow it year-round, at least not in North Carolina. Our strawberry season lasts about five weeks. Blueberry season is from May through July. To meet demand for local when produce is out of season, freezing has become an option. Last year I visited a farm that had recently added a building for their individual quick frozen (IQF) machine, which freezes fresh produce. Fruit that would have gone to waste is now being frozen, giving consumers the chance to buy local fruits out of season.

4.  Donate

I mentioned this briefly in my previous post on food waste at the farm, but it’s worth repeating here:  Many farmers donate produce to food banks or other organizations. I know one white potato farm that keeps a refrigerated truck at their pack house, and when it is full of seconds the truck delivers the spuds to area food banks and other hunger relief organizations.  

We also have numerous organizations with volunteers who glean, or harvest produce left in fields after the farmer has harvested it. The Society of St. Andrew ( has a large presence in North Carolina and recruits farmers by exhibiting at various farm meetings across the state. Here’s a photo of a sweet potato they gleaned that was on display at their booth during the NC SweetPotato Commission’s annual meeting a few years ago.

Gleaned sweet potato

The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act ( protects farmers, who can also use the donation as a tax write-off.

5.  Livestock Feed

Did you know cows and pigs love sweet potatoes? Many sweet potato packhouses sell tubers that don’t qualify as seconds to local livestock farmers, who feed it to their animals. This practice of keeping fruits and vegetables that may have ended up in landfills for better use is implemented on many farms, including this one, which uses produce from Walmart.

These are just a few ways food waste is being cut. Do you have any examples of how edible food that was headed to a landfill is now ending up on someone’s plate?




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