Guy’s news: Waste, empowerment & the wealthy

25 years ago, I lost it with Tilly, one of our best carrot pickers. She refused not to put the bent, twisted and forked carrots in the sack. Like Tilly, most of us hate waste but seem powerless to prevent it. Supermarkets have their campaigns for wonky veg, invariably abandoned as quickly as the headlines they generate. The explanation lies in simplicity and, arguably, laziness; trade works best when products can be well defined, and it is easier to define perfection (straightness etc.) than levels of deviation from it. The brutal truth is that farmers get so little for a carrot that the hassle of defining acceptable imperfection, grading to the definition, and finding a customer willing to accept that grade is just not worth it. So the wonky ones get left in the field, and the waste goes on.

It was with some reluctance that we recently got involved with Dan Barber and his team of chefs from New York, who ran a month-long pop-up restaurant (WastED London) in Selfridges, cooking almost entirely what would otherwise have been thrown away. The cynic in me got a whiff of more marketing hype. The best dish was one of our kale stalks, flash-fired in the oven, impaled on a spike and theatrically brought to the table with a pair of scissors and a delicious ash mayonnaise. It was showy and very New York, but I managed to suppress my dour Devon farmer’s cynicism. The lettuce butts and fish cheeks were also excellent, as was at least 70% of the meal; the gastronomy, style and service were fantastic. My consciousness was raised and I left determined to look again at what we can do to further reduce waste at Riverford. It is already very low – if we don’t think it is good enough for you, there is a hierarchy whereby it goes to our restaurants, staff, local charities, then the cows – but we can do better.

As I made my way out onto Oxford street, walking between the jewels of Cartier, YSL and Channel, I found myself musing that most food waste is ultimately the result of consumer empowerment: the ‘need’ for customers to have exactly what they want, when they want it. Those with the most money have the most choice, and almost invariably cause the most waste. There was an irony in eating a meal devoted to reducing waste in Selfridges; at £100/ head, it was not exactly skip diving. I wonder what Tilly would have made of it.

29 responses to “Guy’s news: Waste, empowerment & the wealthy

  1. Alison Edwards

    It appals me the amount of waste us humans create.
    I watched a programme recently about eating insects and this one village where if you did’nt eat insects there was nothing else to eat.
    The young boys would set out before dawn to capture Tarantulas from their holes in the ground, a delicacy and a whole meal in itself.
    They would get back in the evening with the day’s catch clean and cook them , roasted over a fire and eat them with rice or meal.
    Nothing wasted a whole day spent finding food for family.
    We have been brought up in a society where money rules and if something hasn’t got a barcode on it, or does’nt look the norm it is wasted.
    There is enough food in the world we just need to see it from the other side

  2. I’d happily have wonky veg, I really don’t mind what shape my carrots are as long as I can still use them. How about introducing a wonky veg box?

  3. Funnily enough I was listening to the BBC Food Prog on catch-up only last night and it did make me think! As someone involved in a food waste project the next time we’re offered a field of organic cauliflowers as we were last week we’ll make sure we treat the leaves with the same respect and value as the florets. David

  4. I would be happy with wonky carrots

  5. Is it really fair to blame “the public”? Does the busy mum, probably pretty new to the game, with toddlers, babies and in all likelihood a job to fit in, have either the time or energy to look for “acceptable ” produce? Poor thing has enough to feel guilt about as she tries to balancce her budget in a demaanding world.
    The faults lie in the extraordinary phenomenon of the supermarket! The buyers are closer to the Accounts Department than to any live customer and a very false market is created.
    And cauliflower leaves made some delightful soup along with a carrot and a parsnip !

  6. Regarding this comment: “consumer empowerment: the ‘need’ for customers to have exactly what they want, when they want it. Those with the most money have the most choice, and almost invariably cause the most waste.” I believe ‘consumer empowerment’ originated as a construct of marketing departments in an increasingly competitive market place and is not a true reflection of the demands of customers generally. As such, I don’t think it’s accurate to assume that generally customers have fallen for that marketing ploy and that almost all of those with the most money have done so. I think it would be more accurate to say that it is those who don’t ever consider the consequences of their actions (whether inadvertently or intentionally) that have the most choice and almost invariably cause the most waste. Which is why raising awareness, as Riverford and others are so good at, should help – hopefully to nudge those inadvertently causing waste to stop and think and take a better course of action.

  7. I would be really happy with bent carrots and wonky veg

  8. Robert Kirk Dumitru

    Feel free to put wonky veggies in my box. I am up for THE WONKY VEGGIE BOX too.

  9. Helen Richardson

    I think applying words like wonky oe ugly out people off. Just mix them together in the same bag or display crate. That will make them the norm. Once chopped their original shape make no difference. Nor more importantly does their taste. If you grow your own you are fully aware veg are all kinds of shapes and sizes. Veg all rhe same size makes me suspicious that chemicals have beeñ used as it’s unnatural.
    So wonky please and without labels and names!.
    Helen Richardson, Hitchin

  10. I am a strong devotee of Riverford and organic veg generally but was worried to read that Riverford doesn’t put wonky veg in the boxes anyway….. I thought you did? You talk of empowerment but no one has ever asked me whether I want or mind wonky veg? The answer is that I don’t mind and I guess most of your customers don’t either! So go on put them in, or at least do a box that is “wonky friendly”. I’m with Tilly on this one, she’s right, come on Guy has the size of Riverford made you turn away from your true principles? Why not just add the wonky veg as freebies to the boxes and ask us to let you know if we ate them, fed them to cows, put them on the compost or put them in the bin? Bet we’ll all eat them – none of it is exactly cheap!!!

  11. I feel that ‘… the ‘need’ for customers to have exactly what they want, when they want it…’ should be challenged. Consumers often want a particular product (eg: lettuce) because it’s what they familiar with, and supermarkets want to be able to provide it for them – ALL the time – whatever the time of day and whatever the time of year. In trying to do so, supermarkets order (and their suppliers grow) huge amounts of fruit, salad and vegetables which cannot all be used before it spoils. If more food was seasonal and less produced, there would be less choice, but advice could be given to customers to enable them to use what was available. (They may or may not know how to cook with alternatives, and may not have much spare time to learn). So, for example, instead of lettuce, ways of making delicious salads with other vegetables could be displayed, ensuring that, long term, far less food was wasted.

  12. Perfectly happy with ‘wonky’ (eg real!) veg! Once it’s chopped up it’s all the same anyway. Stop Waste!

  13. I think wonky veg should be put in the boxes as standard practice, to me that is part of organic, I always pride myself on getting my veg from riverford over the supermarkets in the knowledge we are eating seasonal, pesticide free vegetables that are healthier for not only us but the environment too, so why not add the wonky veg too, and if feeling generous add it in as a free sample 😀.

  14. Totally agree with comments on Wonky Veg boxes; I would buy. I buy your juicing carrots for my horse and they are perfectly acceptable.

  15. I cheer for all these letters. Come on Guy – get us moving – and a very happy Easter to you and all your farmers – all those who labour that we might eat. So many thanks.

  16. I’m with Mrs A on this one…..wonky veg should be part and parcel of the Riverford principle, surely.I imagine most customers here want chemical free food as well as know waste.I also assumed wonky vege went in the box’s without question,not fed to the cows!! Set your own rules Guy,don’t follow the supermarkets.

  17. As has been mentioned, anyone who has ever grown their own veg knows it is rarely perfect, but having spent time weeding, nurturing etc, we don’t throw it away. Choice is the culprit. Given the choice we will always opt for perfection, it’s instinct, survival of the fittest etc. Lack of choice didn’t​ do us any harm, it also fires the imagination, something sadly lacking in the younger generations.
    I fully support using the less than perfect fruit and veg, which should be commonplace anyway, and disagree with the spurious descriptions​ such as wonky.

  18. When my boys were small we bought our veg from the local farmers market who put all their carrots in the bunches. We cooked the carrots whole and the boys would fight over who got the mis-shaped carrots on their plate.
    Would happily accept any size or shaped veg.

  19. Margaret Hayward

    I don’t care what shape my veg are and I didn’t think you did Riverford! I was surprised this week too that my carrots were topped and tailed and washed. When I’ve had them before they’ve not been. What’s going on? If you get organic stuff in a supermarket, chances are it’s wrapped in plastic and you have lots of plastic bags available to put your selection in. I don’t want plastic, but when I asked, you don’t reuse your plastic bags. So yes, there’s more you can do.
    Always is. In the meantime though keep doing it. I’ve tried more veg and more recipes with my box than pre-box. My only problem is that as a singleton, there’s too much. I’d like an option with smaller portion size veg that I could add into to make up minimum cost.

  20. As a riverford box customer I am happy to have wonky veg – my carrots grown at home are always wonky as well as the parsnips. The cauliflower etc. unfortunately gets eaten by the chickens.

  21. Jennifer Watkins

    Put any shaped veg in my box, by the time they’ve been prepped who can tell the difference anyway. The flavour is the same.

  22. Power to the wonky veg – they taste as good (often better) than their designer peers, because they’ve been left to get on with growing as nature intended!

  23. I would also like to have some misshapen veg in my box and would be happy to pay for it, after all it will taste the same as the shapely ones.
    I am also very pleased that you leave most of the leaves round your cauliflowers before putting them in our boxes. Not only does it make them keep better but I have only recently discovered that they are delicious – just chop them up roughly, boil briefly and eat like cabbage. Sweet and delicious!

  24. Just checked our fridge – quite a few carrots that are misshapen, different sizes, not straight. All from Riverford. Who gives a toss about wonky veg? Taste is what matters and as several people have said already, once prepared and cooked how would you ever know. The potatoes are the same, different shapes and sizes, muddy and unwashed. The supermarkets have a lot to answer for but so do too many consumers who really do not think about the consequences of waste – the mantra is “as long as it is cheap and convenient, who cares?” and this is a deep rooted cultural issue as much as anything else. And excessive food waste is a symptom of that laziness. All simplistic stuff but within the control of all of us to put right. Rant over.

  25. Yes yes wonky veg, all good wholesome and true , please don’t waste, mixing them up sounds a good idea to me!
    Fiona

  26. I would and do eat wonky veg from my allotment. If it doesn’t look too good I put it in a smoothy. At least I know where it’s come from, how fresh it is and what it hasn’t been sprayed with.
    £100 sounds like a right rip off at Selfridges. I hope the suppliers of the food were given a good price

  27. It does frequently occur to me that
    1) the Riverford veg does look like supermarket “perfect” produce, and#
    2) I never manage to get this standard from my own modest efforts
    I put this down to my lack of skill in growing veg and the pressure on all growers (including organic ones) to provide pretty veg. However, I (along with most Riverford customers, I suspect) would be happy with odd shapes and sizes – in fact, it would be a reaffirmation that we are helping to maintain efficiency and minimise the environmental impact of food production.

  28. Shelagh Anderton

    My first box from Riverford included chard – something I have never tried to cook. Fortunately it came with a recipe :). I really enjoyed it. One of the reasons that I get a box is that I feel that we are losing knowledge of what fruit and veg are seasonal. Surely what makes cooking more exciting is using what is available and being creative. Once a veg is cooked it doesn’t matter what shape it was originally as long as it tastes good.

  29. Clément Gonnet

    “Uniformity kills creativity”. Nature cannot be standardised or it looses its life. Please put all the mis-shaped veg in my box.

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