Between 20 and 30 percent of food grown on farms in the United States remains in the field unharvested, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In response, WWF created a pilot program, called Second Helping, in an attempt to reduce food waste and help gig-workers, farmers, and food banks.
WWF launched the research series No Food Left Behind (NFLB) in 2018 to study food waste in the U.S. Second Helping, the most recent step in NFLB’s research, contributed to the initiative by studying whether a new domestic labor force could help reduce food waste.
To develop the program, WWF partnered with a local food bank that paid participants to pick and pack surplus tomatoes on a California tomato farm.
Participants were recruited through Craigslist and other online job boards and most had no previous experience. They received training from farmers on-site. Shifts lasted two hours each and participants earned between US$20-40 an hour at US$0.15 per pound, on par with the standard rate for tomato picking.
WWF published the findings from the pilot in its report No Food Left Behind Part 3. The report explains that food goes unharvested due to an absence of purchasers and the high cost of labor. It also says that a gig-based labor force, like the one used in the pilot program, can successfully pick and pack surplus crops on behalf of food banks.
In post-participation surveys, many participants reported they would be excited to accept more shifts in the future, Leigh Prezkop, Program Specialist at WWF tells Food Tank. She attributes this excitement to the high wages and the flexibility allowed by the short, local shifts.
They appreciated “being outside and… the gig nature of the job,” says Prezkop. “A lot of the participants moved to this more rural area of California… because the cost of living is so high.” Participants indicated to Prezkop this job allowed them more time to take care of their children or take on a second part-time job.
Without required background checks, the program also appealed to those who may face employment barriers due to criminal records. According to WWF, one-third of pilot participants self-identified as previously incarcerated.
But as gig work continues to increase in popularity in the U.S., concerns about worker protection, liability, and fair treatment are emerging. And if WWF cannot reasonably guarantee protections for workers, the farm labor sector “would not be a space where we could continue to work,” Prezkop tells Food Tank.
Eventually, WWF hopes that new technology, including an app can connect workers and farmers to divert surplus produce. And while WWF does not plan to create the technology themselves, they hope that their pilot program will inform its creation.
Prezkop says that they hope to bring “[WWF’s research] to that point for others to take the concept of Second Helping and run with it.”