‘Social supermarkets’ a growing outlet for Europe’s hungry

Even when I don’t mean to, I keep coming across interesting stories about the dual fight against hunger and food waste. This week I wrote about the first “social supermarket” to open in the U.K. The stores are a European invention — part discount grocer, and part social service agency, they’re also kind to the environment because they keep food out of landfills.

The stores are stocked with “unsellable” (but perfectly edible) food a la Food Cowboy and grocery auctions. Access to the supermarkets is limited to those in need who can prove they receive some form of welfare benefits. In addition to being able to buy cheap food (so cheap the prices are symbolic), customers can take classes on everything from cooking to resume writing.

I talked at length with Christina Holweg, an Austrian professor who is one of the first academics to really look at the model. She volunteers at a social supermarket herself and that experience seems to have greatly informed her research.

She has never heard of a U.S. equivalent and I couldn’t think of one either — food pantries and dented can stores are similar but don’t offer the same scope of services. And neither of them uses the membership model. Still, I could see a lot of potential for these stores stateside.

Entrepreneurs see opportunity in food waste

I recently came across two startups — Food Cowboy and CropMobster — that are using technology to seize on a major opportunity to avert food waste (40 percent of food in the U.S. goes uneaten each year). I profiled both today for NPR’s food blog, The Salt.

I’ve been incredibly intrigued by food waste issues since first covering grocery auctions last year. There’s a lot of overlap between those events and what D.C.-based Food Cowboy does in particular — both rely on truckers to decide not to discard their “kicked” loads at the nearest landfill or Dumpster, even though they’re under pressure to do so.

I learned a lot talking with Richard Gordon, a trucker himself, about just how fickle some companies can be when it comes to rejecting produce. Eggplant not purple enough? Toss it. Torn box on a pallet of 20? Not worth dealing with. The food doesn’t always head straight to the trash. If green beans get a little brown on the tips, they might be sent to a reprocessing center where those ends are cut off and the veggies become “fresh cut green beans” before they’re shipped back out to stores.

I came across the scene shown above while on a walk with Barbara Cohen and Roger Gordon, the other folks behind Food Cowboy. The bananas that were being thrown away seemed perfectly edible, albeit a bit speckled. At one point, the same worker who was tossing out the lot took a break to peel and eat one. Still good.

Bushels of basil: A story and recipes

My latest post for NPR.org isn’t so much a story as it is a drawn-out love letter to basil, my favorite herb. It’s my first time writing for Kitchen Window, a weekly feature that focuses on a particular ingredient, cuisine or theme (it’s also usually written by people much more qualified than me).

But it was a nice change of pace — and most importantly, it gave me an opportunity to eat a lot of basil.

The liminal

I apologize if the site looks like it’s straddling two dimensions as I try to leap into a responsive, mobile-friendly world. Please bear with me as I work out the kinks.

From Polish (nail) polish to the ‘Olympics’ of cooking

One of the things I love most about my job — and journalism in general — is the immense variety in what you might write or learn about on any given day. I was drawn to an anthropology major at Hamline for the same reason. As I often tell people, nothing is better than being able to study mix tapes and tape worms in the same day, in the same department. (If you’re curious, the classes were: Hip-Hop in a Global Perspective and The Anthropology of Infectious Diseases, respectively; both were great.)

In that vein, I wrote a number of blog posts for NPR.org last month about wildly different but fascinating subjects. It started with a photo project on doppelgängers, which are people who look alike but aren’t related. On the other end of the spectrum was an obituary on a Polish nail polish inventor whose product is now taking off among Muslim women in particular.

But perhaps the most fun was covering the Bocuse d’Or cooking competition, which I wrote about for NPR’s food blog, The Salt. The biennial event takes place in Lyon, France, and is like the World Cup/Olympics among chefs. Since I couldn’t fly to Europe, I followed it like I did the World Championship Cheese Contest last year — via a live stream and on Twitter.

The only complication this time around was that the Bocuse d’Or started at 3 a.m. Eastern time. No problem, I just set an alarm for the middle of the night, hooked up my computer to the TV and watched right from the couch like it was ESPN 3. And it really was like a sporting event — fans wore face paint and blasted on vuvuzelas the entire time. It was also entertaining to see just how many hardcore foodies on Twitter wrote off sleep to watch with me.

One of the most interesting angles was how the U.S. team prepared this year:  that is, underground in a former nuclear bunker with an exact replica of the kitchen they would use in France. They even piped in crowd noise to simulate the chaotic environment of the competition.

The team went to all those extremes because they had something to prove. Unlike the Olympics, the U.S. doesn’t dominate the event and, in fact, has never medaled. Despite a great effort and a beautiful dish inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater” house (see side image), they came up short again this year and placed seventh.

I’m already setting my early morning alarm for 2015.

Tough times in Greece bring expired food to the table

Since finishing the grocery auction piece, I’ve continued to follow the topic via a handy Google News alert. And yes, there seems to be such a thing as expired food news. One interesting story I’ve come across this way was a big study that looked at whether prescription drugs, like many food products, really last longer than their posted expiration date. It’s something I’d love to look into.

That alert is also how I found out that Greece is now asking retailers to discount their “old” nonperishable food in response to rising food prices and austerity measures that are cutting deep. The government wants stores to sell products a week to three months past their sell-by date at deep discounts. Anti-austerity activists have protested the move, saying it shoves bad food on the the poor.  I worked with Joanna Kakissis, a reporter in Greece, to write up this post for The Salt.

This story is just a testament to the effectiveness of the Google News alert. It’s a great way to stay up to speed on something you don’t have time to research every day and it makes it that much easier to craft a mini-beat.

To steal a line from a famous infomercial: just set it, and forget it.

From fall to winter in the blink of an eye

I spent my Columbus Day holiday with friends hiking and exploring around Seneca Rocks and the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia. We had intended to peep on the changing leaves but the weather didn’t want to cooperate — what started out as a drizzling rain eventually turned into big flurries of snow. It ended up adding a whole new dimension to the landscape and reminded me of growing up in South Dakota where you often had to design your Halloween costume to fit over a snowsuit because the first blizzard usually hit in October.

Some of my images from the day are below.

At the grocery auction, yogurt is going once…going twice…

My latest story for All Things Considered has made me a woman reformed. Since looking into grocery auctions – where they sell damaged, seasonal, discontinued or close to expired food – I now have second thoughts when deciding whether to throw food in the trash can or onto my plate.

It turns out expiration dates aren’t as menacing as I once thought – they’re only required on infant formula and it’s not illegal to sell most expired food. At the grocery auctions, I met dozens of people who attested to the quality of the out-of-date products they bought for rock bottom prices. With more digging, I found out that expiration dates have been getting shorter, solely for marketing reasons. So between food that expires on the shelf and all of those other “unsellable” products, there are billions of dollars in food per year that most Americans don’t want to buy. But most of it is just fine.

It was a fascinating story to research, and got me really interested in the concept of the reverse supply chain – what happens to products when they reach their intended end, but nobody wants them? Hopefully I’ll be looking into other stories that examine the same question.

Young and unemployed: The view from a year

An Associated Press article that’s been making the rounds this week has a lot of people talking about recent college grads struggling in the job market. The most oft-cited statistic from the article is that 53 percent of graduates are without work or otherwise underemployed.

Although it’s not mentioned in the article, young people without college degrees are having an even tougher time. I did a lot of reporting on this for NPR’s national desk during my Kroc Fellowship last year. Among the pieces I finished were two that didn’t make it to air because — unfortunately for me but luckily for them — my interviewees got jobs and the stories lost their arc.

I recently finished mixing one of the unaired profiles on Kyra, a 23-year-old from Pennsylvania that I connected with through a call-out on NPR’s Facebook page. She had been struggling to find work since she graduated from high school. I was especially drawn to Kyra’s story because of her unique way of making some money while unemployed.

I wasn’t able to include it in the piece, but I consider the clip below to be a great epilogue to her story for a number of reasons.

Continue reading to find out what Kyra is doing now.

Continue reading