It’s 4:30 a.m. on a hot summer morning in July. While most people are still sleeping, Katie O’Neil ’19 is already heading to join her workmates, five other SCU Food and Agribusiness Institute (FAI) students.
The group is spending summer in the fields of some of California’s biggest farms, researching food losses and waste in Northern California. Their goal is to see if wasted produce can be diverted to local food banks.
“We ask the foreman or whoever we’re in contact with at the farm, what edible product is left behind,” says O’Neil. “But they often equate edible with market level, which is not necessarily true. But in their minds and in their businesses that’s what they think is what’s edible. I think that’s hard for them to imagine that there’s anything left behind.”
Market standards for fresh produce in the United States are stringent. Too large, too small, oddly shaped, or even too ripe. If crops don’t conform to what consumers deem “right,” they get left in the field to rot, get tilled back into the soil, or diverted as low-value animal feed. Growers will only deliver what markets expect.
About 16 percent of food waste in the United States occurs at the farm level, according to the existing limited field studies on the subject. But most of those studies rely on self-reporting estimates from farmers. The SCU study is the first to use outside eyes to count waste.
“We’ve been in fields surveying literally tons of left-behind produce with a tractor sitting at the end of the field waiting for us to finish so that they can plow the remaining produce under,” says Greg Baker, executive director of the FAI and principle investigator of this project.
The team, which also includes Nicholas Matera ’18, Thomas Vickers ’19, Jean Baptiste Tooley ’19, and Matthew Ryan ’18, wants it to be practical for farmers to donate to food banks like Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
“That was a main focus of the research: Are these local farms able and willing to donate to Second Harvest? Because they’re the biggest donation organization in the Bay and the Central California area,” says Matera.
That would move food from left behind to on the plate.