Q&A: Yolanda Soto says Covid-19 helped boost the market for imperfect produce

The Covid-19 pandemic upended the food supply chain in 2020, but massive quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables from Mexico kept flowing into the border town of Nogales, Arizona. Not all of it made it to American tables, however, or even out of Nogales. Instead, as is the case every year, millions of pounds of misshapen or otherwise imperfect produce was diverted to the landfill. Despite the pandemic, Borderlands Food Rescue managed to keep up its longtime work of salvaging those less-than-perfect tomatoes, cucumbers, mangoes, and watermelons for people in need. The nonprofit works with churches, universities, and community groups to distribute boxes of produce at weekend host sites throughout the state. Borderlands CEO Yolanda Soto, who FERN profiled in 2015, explains how the pandemic affected the organization’s 27-year effort to make a dent in food insecurity while reducing food waste.

How has the pandemic changed your operation?

We didn’t rescue as much food because of Covid. The inmate work program that we’ve had for 25 years — that labor force was taken from us in March of 2020 as part of measures to prevent the spread of Covid. It’s an Arizona Department of Corrections program that transports minimum-security inmates from Tucson to Nogales four days a week. Our staff is small, so those 12 gentlemen really are the backbone of what we’re able to rescue. Without them, it was impossible to keep up.

How did that affect food distribution?

We don’t have as much food to distribute. But also I lost 40 percent of my host sites. It was at 63, and then it came down to 43, which is what I have now. It came down even further, to about 36 for a little bit, when they all panicked about the pandemic. So I had to concentrate on those host sites that were able to, and wanted to, continue distributing produce. The amount those sites distributed almost tripled.

Once the host sites saw that we were distributing in accordance with the CDC recommendations, then they started — some of them — to come back on board. [Before the pandemic], we would set up like a farmers market, and people would come and pick their own produce. We stopped that and instead had people drive up to the sites, and volunteers wearing masks would put the pre-packed boxes in their car trunks. Drivers never get out of their cars; they just roll down the window a little bit to give us their $12 contribution for each 70-pound box. We are very safety conscious; we do social distancing and have signs reminding people to wash their produce at home.

So demand increased as Covid took hold?

Yes. Remember, grocery stores at the beginning [of the pandemic] didn’t have the vegetable supplies, and everything was being depleted very rapidly. We had a lot of new customers that were coming to our host sites to pick up produce. But they had to travel farther because of the sites that we did close down.

Did you lose any suppliers?

No, I don’t have fewer suppliers. I have fewer pounds being donated to me. I have product that may not be in as good condition as it used to be. Why? Because distributors are holding on to it longer now so that they can sell it. During Covid, they started selling everything — supermarket shelves were empty. In better economic times, distributors didn’t care about the product on the floor that they hadn’t sold, so they would donate it.

How does the produce you rescue differ from fruits and vegetables at the grocery store?

I’d say maybe 80 percent of it is flawed. And by flaws I mean something as simple as a little rain scarring or a stem that’s off a tomato, or the ends of a cucumber getting soft. That’s what the flaws are, and so people are beginning to realize that they can still enjoy the nutritional benefits of imperfect but still fresh fruits and vegetables. Most produce can be frozen and saved for later usage, and people are learning to do that as well.

How will you deal with the enduring effects of the pandemic?

We are going to continue to follow our CDC recommendations through 2021. We will re-evaluate depending on what’s happening next year. But we will continue to pre-pack the boxes from truck to trunk. We will continue to have our volunteers wear masks, and ask them to social distance as much as they can. The inmates are back, so we were able to rescue more produce this summer, although the product that distributors donated was not as fresh or as good, so we weren’t able to distribute everything we rescued.

Are you optimistic that your operation will return to what it was pre-pandemic?

There’s a demand for produce, definitely. The consumer is waking up, amid Covid, and realizing that eating healthy is a factor in keeping away a lot of diseases. And more people are looking at secondary markets like ours and being more accepting of those products. In part because they are under tremendous budget constraints, and food is one of the largest expenses that we have. But consumers are also realizing that curbing food waste is good for the planet.