A new use for old produce

Inside the cross-border operation that saves fresh food from the trash.

 

Early on a late-summer Saturday, the six lanes of Tucson’s Ina Road were empty and quiet. But in the parking lot of a bland strip mall, a temporary community had blossomed. Between two lines of white-topped buffet tables stood a mountain of produce: multicolored mini peppers gathered into bulging shopping bags, flats of crimson tomatoes, heaps of pale green watermelons.

The display was part of a weekly produce distribution dubbed P.O.W.W.O.W. — or “Produce on Wheels Without Waste.” On an August morning, Yolanda Soto and about a dozen local volunteers supervised as seven tons of imperfect but wholesome vegetables that would otherwise end up in a landfill were farmed out to more than 200 families.

Over the next two hours, people lined up at the tables — young, old, white, Hispanic, Asian — filling up boxes, laundry baskets, little red wagons. “It’s not just the most vulnerable people that come. Some redistribute it to other families,” Soto said. “Others are middle-class and are just trying to stretch their budget.”

An estimated 70 billion pounds of food is wasted in the U.S. each year, at a cost of upwards of $200 billion a year, or 1,250 calories a day for each one of us. Research suggests that the average American family of four throws away about 15 percent of the food it purchases. Every one of those discarded squashes or wilted lettuce heads carries another cost, too, in the form of the energy, water and fertilizer used to grow it. Soto regards this excess as a unique opportunity to feed someone whose grocery budget may not be quite enough.

“There’s no more basic right than food,” Soto says, “but it has to be nutritious food. That’s a basic human right.”

 

Volunteers stand by as shoppers check the offerings at a Produce on Wheels Without Waste meetup at the Calvary North Church in Phoenix.
Courtesy Borderlands Food Project

The P.O.W.W.O.W. project focuses on the middle part of the food distribution process, between farmers and consumers. During peak seasons — winter and spring — more than 1,500 semi-trucks filled with fruits and vegetables rumble daily through Nogales, a border city and one of the main points of entry for produce imported from Mexico. On the U.S. side, the perishables are loaded into warehouses, then re-loaded into trailers headed for stores and restaurants across the country.

Yet the glossy expectations of supermarket customers and managers mean that a substantial portion of the produce will get thrown out even before it even reaches the stores: tomatoes missing their stems, squashes with raindrop stains, irregularly shaped eggplants — all are discarded. Even perfect pallets of melons can be tossed out if they’re more than the distributors ordered.

Food also gets wasted when it lingers too long at the border. It can take many hours for trucks to be allowed to depart from Mexico, and entry into the U.S. is slow, too. One of Soto’s dreams is to find ways to speed border crossings for truckers hauling fresh produce. An estimated 50 million pounds of produce crosses the border each year, and an unknown portion of that is thrown out because after a long transit, it’s bruised, wilted or starting to rot.

A native of Nogales, Soto is a middle-aged, raven-haired sparkplug of a woman. Before she began working for the Borderlands Food Bank 22 years ago, all the rejected produce ended up in the local landfill. So in 2014, she organized the P.O.W.W.O.W. program, through which truckloads are shipped every weekend to distribution points in the Tucson and Phoenix areas as well as Nogales and its namesake Mexican sister city, rescuing about three-quarters of the produce that would have otherwise gone to waste. For $10, customers can walk away with up to 60 pounds of it.

 

Yolanda Soto with tons of “rescued” produce in the Borderlands Food Bank warehouse in Nogales, Arizona.
Alex Peterson/Greener Media

By 8 a.m., more than 200 people have paid and loaded up their cars and vans. The squash and eggplants are gone, as are the mini peppers. A 10-year-old named Dustin helps the last few customers find the perfect watermelons from a huge cardboard box. He’s a regular volunteer, as is his dad, Danny Morgan.

Melissa Starks drove 50 miles to Tucson from the mining town of San Manuel after hearing about the program through Facebook. She eyes the last remnants. Is she really going to use that whole flat of tomatoes — 16 beefsteaks, each the size of a softball?

“Oh, yes, we’re going to be using it all,” she says, contemplating. “We’ve got a big family.” She plans to come back for more in a couple of weeks.

When the tomatoes are gone, the boxes and tables are broken down and loaded back into the truck. As the semi pulls away, a couple of volunteers use a hose to wash the watermelon smears off the pavement. By 8:30, there are no longer any signs of the pop-up community that met here — just the puddled runoff gathered in the dip in the middle of the parking lot.

Peter Friederici is an award-winning environmental journalist who directs the Master of Arts in Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.