In all the Covid-19 chaos, one thing stood out to me as I scoured the aisles at my local grocer before self-isolating. The fruits and vegetables were completely stocked.
Even with the worst estimates saying we’ll be confined to our homes for as long as the next two months, I was surprised so few people were buying fruit and vegetables. I noticed this was a pattern around the country.
I need to state that hoarding or “panic buying” several months’ worth of food and supplies is discouraged by health professionals. Nonetheless, people don’t seem to be buying fruit or vegetables nearly at all. With most adults and children being home for at least two weeks and restaurants closing or restricting serving capacity, fresh fruit and vegetables for snacking, smoothies, baking, and other cooking should also be flying off the shelves.
So why aren’t Americans buying fruit and vegetables?
Based on online conversations, many people seem to think fresh fruit and vegetables ought to be left alone at a time like this because of their comparatively shorter shelf life.
At first, that seems to make sense. However, the truth is it’s more likely that leaving the fruits and vegetables at the store will contribute to massive food waste during this time when people are retreating indoors for days on end.
Stores may certainly donate to shelters and that’s great, but if food isn’t being purchased, stores will order less or nothing at all from producers. That’s not good news for America’s farmers who will find themselves with lots of food and nowhere to put it. Produce will last much longer and go to better use in our homes.
So, I encourage you to step away from the sixth box of pasta and buy some fresh food!
There are so many things that can be done with fresh fruit and vegetables to help increase their utility past their natural expiration date. Canning and freezing being the two most common.
Some fruit is best enjoyed as it’s pushing over-ripeness, like bananas in pancakes or pears for dressings.
In addition, it can be simple to store certain fruits and vegetables properly so that they last multiple weeks and months. For example, don’t store apples and bananas together because they each emit ethylene and contribute to the other ripening or softening faster.
Sturdy vegetables like broccoli, squash, onions, and asparagus can last weeks with proper storage.
All of that aside, there is a persistent concern and misconception that fresh food that is a bit soft, or a bit brown isn’t good to eat. While food experts work to educate people about actual signs of spoilage, food scientists are working to make sure the food we eat doesn’t fall victim to perceptions of beauty and become waste.
Two innovations to help reduce food waste due to consumer misconceptions include genetically modified non-browning apples, and reduced bruising and black spot potatoes. Apples and potatoes are fresh foods that can have long lives when stored properly but are often tossed out for cosmetic reasons. Apples tend to turn brown when cut even if they are still perfectly crisp. Potatoes gain bruises or black spots when they’re handled roughly and are therefore tossed out even if they will still make excellent fries.
There are too many interesting ways to consume fresh produce for Americans to be skipping them entirely during this mass social distancing effort.
Biotechnology is helping us keep more varieties of fruits and vegetables around longer, but until then, get creative and have fun with the items in the produce aisle.
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