Wednesday, February 27th, 2013...2:49 pm

An interesting approach to wasted food

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I recently received an email with the following from the COMFOOD elist (which is sometimes worth the absurd amount of emails it bombards you with):

“Former Trader Joe’s President Doug Rauch is in the news this week for his announcement that he plans to open an urban grocery in Boston (Dorchester) that sells foods that have are near or past their expiration date. He sees it as dually combating food waste and food insecurity in a traditionally low income neighborhood. Full story here.”

Doug Rauch

This article, and the “Urban Food Initiative” solution proposed by Doug Rauch and Harvard Law, speaks to many of the issues and paradoxes in our food system. For example, on one level, it speaks to food deserts and a lack of access. On another, it addresses issues of waste in our food system. And on yet another it bumps up into issues of class and wealth disparities. Why is it that a well-intentioned project that provides a solution to food security and access as well as waste issues can (and fairly often does) run up against resistance?

On a very basic level, as the article addressed, was the weirdness that comes from selling the rich’s “unwanted” to the poor. This short opinion piece argues for living wages over “left over” foods to address the issues of access and waste. But Boston’s Haymarket sells otherwise “unwanted” cheap produce, too, and the resistance is not the same. What’s up, here?

A video about Haymarket, touching on the history, the immigrant presence, the vibe and the prices

A lot of the articles we read for this week dealt with the issue of access, waste, and class, indirectly a lot of the time, as they discussed the growth and changes of the “Market District,” including Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. Haymarket, a market in the “District” and known for its overwhelming, controlled-chaotic atmosphere and cheap produce, has become a community keystone, attracting many customers of different backgrounds. The cheap “seconds” (being slightly blemished yet otherwise reasonably attractive products) at Haymarket don’t, at least in the articles, bump into the issues of class that Rauch’s project seems to.

I think a clue to why this might be can be found in the very way the article in the Pheonix was written about Haymarket; it looked at several of the personalities found there. A personal approach to looking at Haymarket makes it very much about the experience, the people, and the connections between people, in addition to the low-priced food. The Boston Globe article about Rauch’s “Urban Food Initiative,” on the other hand, is about the food itself. Indeed, one opinion piece in the Boston Globe points out that the Initiative might gain a lot from engaging more with community members, acknowledging that the personal should be personal. Both markets would sell cheap food, but the very structure of each gives them entirely different meanings.


In a similar vein, the vendors at Haymarket do not all talk about feeling good about addressing issues of waste in the system or providing people with cheaper food. They talk more about knowing their customers and having a system of trust and a sort of faithfulness. The impacts on access and waste are externalities, not main objectives. The “Urban Food Initiative,” however, talks much more directly about addressing issues many have identified in the food system. While the issue of food access and waste is directly tied to humans, the article almost removes the human out of the language, citing percentages, figures, and surveys, rather than people.

To be fair, the Yelp comments about Haymarket are mostly about the prices and the insanity of the scene, rather than the vendors. Example: “To put it in perspective, you can get 5 lbs of potatoes for $2, whereas the same potatoes at Shaw’s would be $4.99.” -Aileen Q.

One notable exception is this gal, who argues along the same lines as Rauch, but gives praising credit to the vendors in her review:

“The sellers at Haymarket are generally honest people who make a meager existence by selling overstock food at a huge discount, to people who need it, and by doing so they prevent so much food from being wasted. Did you know that 40% of farm food ends up in the landfill? With food insecurity so rampant? These people provide at least as much of a service to society as organic farmers, so they deserve some respect.” -Ana Cristina G.

The concern with food waste is validated (check out this site with nice visuals of our wasteful food system, including this one):

But the attitude about how to approach minimizing this waste is also important.

The way Haymarket is presented in the article (perhaps not so much in the Yelp comments, although most of them do mention the chaos of the market) makes it feel like a homegrown, personalized place to experience, whereas the descriptions of Rauch’s proposal make the Urban Food Initiative seem more like a capitalist venture trying to solve problems from the top down. To be real with you, they are both working in a capitalist world, they both address the issues at hand on some level, and they both sell cheap food to whomever. But they are presented in various articles in ways that speak to ideas about community, values of human interactions, and the experience of the marketplace.

Maybe Haymarket does feel personal, or at least the experience is one of interacting with humans. I don’t know, but I know that’s how the articles presented it. Maybe the Urban Food Initiative will really just focus on being a source of “cheap food,” with a feeling of unpersonalized service or an ever-present weirdness of class distinction based on prices paid for food through a formal grocery store. I don’t know, maybe we’ll find out some day.

But when we consider how the markets fit in their communities, there is some value in looking at what people will accept and what people will resist, and to look at the reasons behind those attitudes.

These informational sites seem to generally support my observations, too:

Boston Discovery Guide on Haymarket with a bit on the vendors BEFORE a bit on the prices

New England Travel Planner, again mentioning vendors before prices

And then of course feels strongly about Rauch’s proposal

BTW, sounds like they’re hiring.



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