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Getting Over Our Preference for Perfect Produce

From the April 25, 2014 issue of Newsweek

Lift, squeeze, sniff. It’s a ritual millions of us perform every day inthe produce aisle of the grocery store, rejecting the blemished and irregular in search of an ideal seldom found on any farm.

Forty percent of all food is never eaten, and this rejection of “ugly food”—the misshapen or imperfect produce that gets thrown out before it ever hits the supermarket display—is a major contributor to food waste. Most of that waste happens on the consumer side: food rejected by shoppers or by the markets before it reaches their aisles, or rejected in restaurants before it reaches our tables. Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, thinks he has the answer. This summer he is opening a store in Boston, called Daily Table, that will make outdated and blemished food friendly and attractive. His “hybrid between a grocery store and a restaurant”—with both fresh produce and prepared, “speed-scratch” dishes with prechopped vegetables, cooked proteins and rice that’s ready to eat, requiring just sauce and seasoning—is a pilot project attempting to recast the social norms of what’s fresh, desirable and edible.

The project grew out of a fellowship Rauch started at Harvard in 2010, following the end of his tenure at Trader Joe’s. One in six Americans, he discovered, is not eating enough nutrients. “They can’t afford to get the food they need,” he explains, adding that what they eat is “calorically dense, but nutritionally stripped.” The health care tsunami that follows—early-onset diabetes and heart disease, even in children and teens; additional health care costs of half a trillion dollars over the next two decades due to rising obesity—makes it everyone’s problem. Malnutrition, paired with the problem of food waste that he saw firsthand at Trader Joe’s, got him thinking.

At a recent conference in Washington, D.C., put on by the Partnership for a Healthier America, Rauch shared a panel called “Feed Families Not Landfills” with Tim York of Markon, a company that distributes billions of dollars worth of produce across the U.S. “He showed a photo of a field of romaine lettuce—10 acres of it, beautiful,” Rauch remembers. “The photo was the field after the harvest. They’d harvested all the lettuce that was the right size for bagged lettuce, but there was a ton out there that was two inches too tall or too short, and that gets plowed under. All of the things that are not the right size, color, shape—a lot goes rotten, gets plowed under or goes to compost.”

Rauch wondered if he could open an attractive retail store, partner with grocers and producers to source the surplus food that might not be perfectly beautiful, present it well and price it competitively with junk food. A dime for an apple, say, instead of a buck?

“We let perfect be the enemy of the good: If we go into store and see an avocado that is blemished or misshapen, we’ll pick the one next to it,” Rauch says, “but we make exceptions in two cases. One, we call it heirloom. It can be funky-looking, and should be. And two is the farmers’ market. You don’t expect apples to look like they do at Whole Foods. You’d be suspicious. What’s interesting is that we instinctively know that things in nature aren’t supposed to look like this.”

The idea at Daily Table is to create an atmosphere akin to a farmers market. “In the real world, carrots will often have two legs rather than one, but you never see those in the grocery store, because they’re almost always thrown out,” says Nathanael Johnson, food writer for Grist and the author of All Natural, a book that debates when “natural” is really healthy. “We’ve become so alienated from our farms that we can no longer assess the healthfulness of our food. Instead, people gravitate toward external perfection.”

Daily Table will also tackle the problem of sell-by date versus expiration date. “When a grocer sells you a gallon of milk, if it says sell by April 2, it doesn’t mean that you have to go home and drink it that night,” Rauch says. “Generally, it will last a week after that. Most Americans don’t know that. So we are disposing of perfectly good food that’s healthy and wholesome.” Consumer education is part of his mission; the store will work with quality assurance food labs and manufacturers to determine conservative “use-by” dates, giving customers information on what they mean, as well as plenty of time to use products.

Europe is in the vanguard when it comes to hip-ifying ugly food. The EU has designated 2014 the “European Year Against Food Waste.” After a British member of Parliament, Laura Sandys, set up a company to encourage the sale and use of oddball fruits and vegetables—food should be valued for nutrition, she said, “not whether it is fit for a catwalk”—the supermarket giant Sainsbury’s changed rules governing the aesthetic appearance of its fresh produce. Last year, the rebranding of ugly food came to pass in Switzerland (with a brand called Unique) and Germany (a line called Wunderlinge, with a meaning approximating “anomaly” and “miracle”). The produce is cheaper, and goes fast. Recently, three German graduate students cooked up the idea for a trendy grocery that sells only ugly fruit.

A recent report commissioned by the U.K. global food security program shows that of a given crop of fruit or vegetables grown in the country, up to 40 percent is rejected because it doesn’t meet retailer standards on size or shape. That’s a sizable chunk of the $31.3 billion of food that gets jettisoned in Britain every year. American supermarkets lose $15 billion each year in unsold fruits and vegetables. American consumers like their apples red and their bananas unspotted, so grocery stores comply—sometimes even dyeing and cutting to fit.

Changing mainstream culture to accept a crooked cucumber has bigger implications than just cost. Given that 20 to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, food waste is a huge piece of the global climate problem. Last month, a new study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed scientists’ deep concerns about dropping agricultural production—as much as 2 percent per decade for the rest of the century. The panel’s researchers have also found that though minor improvements can be made to improve efficiency in agriculture, the real game changers will lie on the consumption side.

“The best forecasts I’ve seen suggest that we are going to have to double agricultural production by 2050,” says Johnson. “Doing that without cutting down the rain forest is going to be a tremendous challenge—especially given that climate change is actually driving farm productivity down.” The single best idea for solving this problem, with the lowest costs and fewest trade-offs? Stop throwing away so much of the food we grow.

So in the short term, the issue looks skin-deep: Ugly food is just as good as pretty food, and it’s easier on the wallet. In the long term, a preference for ugly may shore up our global food supply.

“Is it possible to tell the story and have people better educated and smarter about buying food?” Rauch asks. “The difference between that sell-by date and when the food is no longer edible can feed a huge population.” And in an environment in which healthy food is often priced at a premium (part of why Whole Foods is sometimes called “Whole Paycheck”), he’s doing it at a price affordable to people who need it most.

“The doors,” he says, “are open to everyone.”

Interview with PRI’s ‘The World’

Bonnie Tsui talks with host Aaron Schachter about the new Chinese law that dictates visits to elderly parents, and its implications for aging populations of every society. Listen to the story here.

The Sound of the Islands

From the Fall 2012 Music Issue of Anthology magazine

Chris Kamaka can’t remember a day without the ukulele. For the past two decades, he has overseen production at Kamaka Hawaii, the oldest ukulele factory on the islands; before that, he worked in just about every position on the factory line. Founded by his grandfather, Sam Kamaka, Sr., the company has made beautiful handmade instruments from native Hawaiian koa wood since 1916. So inextricable is his family history from the history of the classic four-string that “Kamaka” is virtually synonymous with “the best-made ukuleles in the world.” After a lifetime spent crafting the instruments, Chris still gets unexpected joy from the process.

“Every once in a while, I find one where the wood is extra beautiful or the sound is really special, and I think, ‘Wow, these guys are lucky to get this one,’” he says with a laugh, in the back office near where he strums and screens every ukulele for quality before it is sent out. “Usually it’s for the rock stars — or the wannabe rock stars.”

The ukulele has lately seen something of a global revival, and the venerable company — now run by a third generation of Kamaka boys that includes Chris and his cousin, Fred Jr. — is busier than ever. Sure signs of a cultural tipping point into a new pool of fans: when your instruments are played in prominent fashion by Eddie Vedder (in his latest album, Ukulele Songs) and the cast members of Glee (in the season one finale), all in the same year.

You’ll find Kamaka Hawaii right in downtown Honolulu, behind an unassuming little storefront near the harbor. Four days a week, visitors can enter the two-floor workshop and “talk story” their way around with 87-year-old Fred Sr. — Chris’ uncle — as guide. As the elder Fred describes the cultural history of the diminutive piece of Hawaiiana, he plucks at a hand=painted 1928 pineapple ukulele; so called for its unique shape, the pineapple model became Kamaka’s signature. Its sound — feathery, yet full — is altogether joyous.

The ukulele’s precursor, the four-stringed braginho, was introduced to the Hawaiian islands in the late 1800s by Portuguese laborers who came to work the sugar plantations. Natives renamed it the ukulele, Hawaiian for “jumping fle,” suggesting the dancing motion of a strumming hand. By 1916, several local craftsmen, including Sam Kamaka, Sr., had set up shop.

These days, each Kamaka uke starts as a piece of rough-hewn koa lumber from the Big Island, aged at least four years in the shade to avoid cracking and warping. Stacks of the prized material sit air-drying at the back of the factory under lock and key. After his front-of-the-house tutorial, Fred Sr. takes visitors around to the sawdust-strewn workshop, where artisans cut, bend, and glue pieces of koa into shape for each ukulele body.

Though the process is greatly streamlined by modern innovations — specially designed machines have shortened the time it takes to cut and bend the wood, and perform the tasks with more accuracy — the basics remain the same after a century. At one workstation, craftsmen carefully “book-match” the wood, resulting in the signature symmetrical grain pattern that butterflies out from the center of each ukulele. At other stations, they attach frets, fingerboards, bridges, and necks.

The process of sanding and lacquering is as painstaking as ever; most ukuleles receive five or six coats of lacquer. The time-intensive process ensures a long-lived instrument and a warm, gleaming finish that sets off the beauty of the koa grain.

After the strings and keys are placed, the ukes sit on a rack waiting for personal attention from Chris. Chris, who is a local musician — a member of the Grammy-nominated band Ko’okena — spends the bulk of his workdays testing the ukes before they are shipped out. Notes drift out from the upstairs portion fo the shop as he tests for sound and catches any imperfections.

Part of the ukulele’s charm is that it is one of the easiest instruments to play, with a relaxed intimacy that has made its influence known far and wide beyond Hawaii and America. And it travels well. Kamaka customers past and present include everyone from George Harrison and Ziggy Marley to ukulele wunderkind Jake Shimabukuro (Kamaka makes a special line of Jake-specific models).

The historic pineapple ukulele displayed in the shop gets a lot of admirers, and Fred Sr. laughs at the idea that it should be hidden away. “My wife says, ‘You gotta lock that up — it’s priceless!’” he says, picking up the uke and plucking its strings affectionately. “But I say, ‘I gotta play it every day.’”

East Meets West: A Gathering of Literary Journalists

Bonnie Tsui will be a speaker at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism on November 10, 2012 for East Meets West, which brings together top editors from the East Coast and the West, as well as an audience of 60 talented, veteran writers. The all-day event will be one long conversation about the tradition and the edges of narrative journalism, and will explore how to research and write great stories, where to publish them, and how to collaborate with agents and editors. There will be keynotes, lectures, and practical workshops.

 

‘The Diver,’ in Pop-Up Magazine Issue #5

November 9, 2011, at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. Stories, documentary films, interviews, photography, facts, and radio, LIVE ON STAGE. ArtsJournal: “Bonnie Tsui’s profile piece about a guy who made a career out of diving for urchins in the waters around the shark-infested Farallon Islands before retiring and launching a new career filming underwater life for scientific researchers, provided perhaps the most engaging example of how a piece of journalism can make the most of the live experience.” Check it out here.

Finding Chinatown: An Interview with The Creosote Journal

A conversation with Justin Allen of The Creosote Journal

In her book American Chinatown, Bonnie Tsui charts the changing landscapes of five American neighborhoods. They are ethnically Chinese, as well as hosting other Asian communities, and their often tough history of exclusion and poverty has been tempered from the beginning with resilience and savvy self-presentation. The five Chinatowns Tsui describes—San Francisco (the oldest), New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Las Vegas (the newest)—have been places of constant reinvention: immigrants coming to build new lives and identities, urban neighborhoods in economic and cultural flux. Today more than ever, they’re a portrait of changing urban dynamics and intergenerational complexity. I met with her to discuss the discoveries she came to in her 2009 book, how she arrived at them, and her tips for writers.

An Interview with Smithsonian Magazine

Hundreds of women concealed their identities so they could battle alongside their Union and Confederate counterparts. Jess Righthand interviews Bonnie Tsui for The Women Who Fought in the Civil War, a Smithsonian.com feature marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

 

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