March 19, 2024

Orange County Produce’s A.G. Kawamura on Fighting Food Waste

There are many reasons a person becomes a farmer. But there is a through line to their motivation: whatever farmers grow, they don’t want to waste it.

The issue of food waste is one that is growing in importance in the mind of the consumer. This goes beyond the “clean your plate!” orders from mothers throughout time to include an increased desire from the public to know about how much food goes from the field into productive use.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food waste is estimated to impact between 30–40 percent of the food supply. As such, preventing food waste is a “we challenge” in that it requires everyone’s participation – from consumers to growers. For Western Growers members, it means they often think of the best way to use as much of their product as they can.

For A.G. Kawamura, owner/partner of Orange County Produce, utilizing all the produce he grows has been a point of pride for a long time. “None of us grow food so that we can throw it away,” Kawamura said. “There’s been some wonderful opportunities that aligns itself with our processing industry that can take a strawberry that’s not that great looking and turn it into delicious juice cut it up and put it into a mash that’s ready for a smoothie.”

Buyers, on behalf of their consumers, are seeking the best looking, most-uniform produce available to stock their shelves, but that’s not always what comes out of the ground or off a tree limb. These measurements of visual or size value doesn’t correlate to a less healthful or tasty product.

While this concept of using the produce that doesn’t fit the mold may be new to some consumers, it isn’t new to growers. For many, they have been finding a place for these products that “have a face for radio” in frozen dinners, produce delivery services or chopped bagged lettuce. Bolthouse has a line of juices made from their perfectly imperfect carrots, which is certified through the Upcycled Food initiative to help consumers easily identify it on the shelves.

On top of finding ways to get food into stores and homes, there are also pathways to get parts of produce that are deemed not fit for human consumption as animal feed. Parts like leafy carrot tops or woody asparagus bottoms may find themselves on a cow’s menu.

Another avenue for preventing food waste is getting it to people who need food support. SunTerra’s Steve Brazeel, motivated to action amid the Covid-19 pandemic, started Project Food Box. Project Food Box moved to solve two problems by creating a bridge: allow farmers to get their products out of the field and get it to the people who need it the most. That bridge required strategic planning, hard work and industry insight, and it is still going strong to deliver this much-needed produce to food banks.

But Brazeel didn’t set out without guidance, and one of the people who shared insight with him at the outset was Kawamura. When it comes to connecting people with their food, Kawamura and Orange Country Produce put resolving hunger and nutrition problems in their community as a key feature of the company’s philosophy.

As a fellow grower, he understands the value of what they make: “What we’re seeing is when we are working these wonderful programs with the food banks is that everything has a good use and opportunity,” he said. “Things with a little bit of damage on them-it might be sunburn or crookedness on a squash or bell pepper, a super-small cabbage instead of a basketball sized cabbage – it can be used.”

With the increased consumer awareness around food waste, a layer of complexity is added to the conversation. If growers are doing everything they can, what amount of culpability falls on the consumer? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions from human activities in the United States…an estimated 58 percent of the fugitive methane emissions (i.e., those released to the atmosphere) from municipal solid waste landfills are from landfilled food waste.”

There are some positive signs that consumers are willing to take action. According to the consumer report Mintel, 70 percent of consumers say they believe buying and using canned/frozen produce is a good way to prevent food waste thanks to its longer shelf life. In the same report, 60 percent of consumers say they would try unfamiliar types of produce if they knew how to cook/prepare them. This indicates that there’s an industry opportunity to expand consumer’s produce interests and consumption with an education campaign.

In California, S.B. 1383, which was signed into law in September 2014 by Gov. Jerry Brown and went into effect in January 2022, requires households and businesses to separate all compostables instead of throwing them in the trash. Though some might be uncomfortable with the new step, Kawamura shared that this is a good opportunity for consumers, growers and government to work together to achieve the long-discussed circular economy.

“Landscapers can’t take green waste and dump it in the dump anymore,” he said. “You have to turn it into compost or a mulch. We’ve had an agreement with a local Southern California company called Agromin that’s been around for a long time that has developed a more straight line. We get to take the green waste after it’s chopped up and ground up and turned into almost a compost and then we bring it in and then we turn it into compost on our property. That’s a great soil amendment for us.”

Food waste is just another example of how growers approach a challenge with a multi-pronged solution. And though there’s still much work to be done by everyone, grower solutions are limited only by their creativity and resourcefulness and those fields of possibility are palatial. Fortunately, some growers are already looking ahead at that terrain.

“These are the long-standing actions and activities that we’ve all been trying to do,” Kawamura said. “And now with new technologies, we have even better opportunities.”