For this research contribution, I interviewed a handful of vendors at a farmers market to understand what happens to produce that is not sold at the market. My hypothesis going in – based on an admittedly limited understanding of how all of this works – was that produce at farmers markets could be predisposed to spoil more quickly than produce found at larger supermarkets. On one hand, there is likely a shorter amount of time from field to fridge for farmer’s market produce, but on the other hand, that produce might be treated to a lesser degree with whatever chemicals or processes it takes to get an apple from a tree in New Zealand to a large super market to the table in Somerville, Massachusetts and remain fresh even a few weeks after purchase. I went in with no agenda, just to ask a handful of the vendors if they wouldn’t mind sharing with me the story of not-bought produce.
Summary of what I Learned
Perhaps it’s not surprising in a town with a lot of entrepreneurial people focused on making the world a better place that there are already some cool solutions out there for making use of what doesn’t get bought and sold right off the bat. The first vendor I interviewed informed me that someone comes around with a banana box at the end of the day to take any produce that’s still edible but can’t be sold to donate to a food pantry. Scraps that aren’t edible are taken back to the farm for pig feed. Food that can still be sold might be boxed up and sold at the next day’s farmers market. The second vendor, Alex, confirmed the collection-donation system, and let me know that the collection group takes away the edible food to various food pantries around the city by wagons on the back of a bike. Large amounts, even. He mentioned that they box up much of their produce for sale at other farmers markets, and keep the produce refrigerated at all times aside from when it is out for market.
Highlights and Insights
Getting More#1. Interestingly, both vendors mentioned that other markets they participate in don’t offer the same collection-donation service. Are there regulations that prevent collection from certain markets? Do the collection agencies not have enough demand from food pantries? Are some markets too far from the food pantries? Is there an opportunity for vendors to take the initiative and help set up the system in the other non-participating markets?
#2. It sounded like a well-oiled operation that vendors were familiar with, however, none of the vendors knew the name of the group that actually collects the waste. Maybe it shouldn’t necessarily be the case that they would need to know the ins and outs of the organization picking up the food. Instead, it could just be a reflection that the system simply works, and they don’t need to know the details. From the vendor point of view, the collection agency takes on the burden of logistics and operations while conveniently takes a burden of unsellable produce off of their hands.
#3. Even in the case of the vendor that had the option of sending unsold produce back to the farm for pigs to consume, they chose to have some portion be collected by the collection-donation agency. Is there some social motivation? Desire to see their produce go to the best use? Or is it instead a question of quantity, where the amount they bring back for pigs is already more than enough?
#1. Why does the collection agency collect from some farmers markets, and not others? Who has to agree? Does location play a role?
#2. Out of a batch of produce, what is the proportion going to each of (A) purchase (B) scraps as animal feed to the farm (C) collection for donation (D) true waste (E) other?
#3. Aside from (A)-(D), what’s in the (E) other bucket? What are other fates for farmers market produce that I didn’t learn about above?
#4. Is there any produce that goes straight from farmers to the collectors, bypassing the display bins at the market altogether? I could imagine a solution where there’s some produce that’s not even set out to sell, for example for cosmetic reasons, but could still be high-quality enough to be donated to a food pantry.
#5. What distinguishes small producers that sell at farmers markets from large-scale supermarket chains? Are there specific advantages (ie. less stringent regulations) or certain limitations (ie. scale) that small producers face for setting up produce-collection systems that are different from large-scale supermarkets? What aspects of the collection-donation model could be scaled up for larger food retailers?
Some Next Steps
#1. Visit a farmers market that has a different system for handling unsold produce and food waste more broadly, learn how that works, why that specific system was adopted.
#2. Learn the name of the collection agency, get in touch, and see how it works.
#3. Learn more about the collection-donation space, for example, delve deeper into the similar process that’s in place for the Boston Public Market.