ROBERT SMITH, HOST:
You know when you walk into a grocery store and you see that beautiful produce section - all those lettuces and tangelos and stocks of celery? Those did not arrive at the Stop and Shop by magic. They did not drop out of the sky. At some point, the farmers and the distributors and the buyers all got together - perhaps at a giant convention center, where everyone is looking for the next big thing.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good day. The New York Produce Show and Conference is now open.
SMITH: I'm here with Nick Fountain. And this place is just amazing. It'll blow your mind. There are mountains of onions and potatoes and carrots.
NICK FOUNTAIN, HOST:
I see wine. I see hummus. I see guacamole.
SMITH: Basically, if you can grow it...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Nobody gives California raddichio any props.
SMITH: ...If you can process it...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Chia, flax seeds.
SMITH: ...If you can truck it...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Antioxidants, nutrients...
SMITH: ...Or if you can put it into some sort of container...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Those are chili flakes - fresh chili flakes.
SMITH: ...You are here at the New York Produce Show.
FOUNTAIN: Anyone who's anyone in fruits or vegetables or supermarkets or distribution is here today.
SMITH: Hello. Welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.
FOUNTAIN: And I'm Nick Fountain. And today on the show, we have gathered together the finest reporters in all the land, the PLANET MONEY team.
SMITH: The idea of this episode is it's sort of a little bit like "Iron Chef" in that everyone is going to get a particular assignment, and they have to go find that story. So we're going to start with Kenny Malone. What is the next superfood? The next kale, goji berries, acai.
KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Acai?
SMITH: Yeah. I have no idea. Go get it. Nick Fountain, find us a fruit or vegetable that's having a difficult year.
FOUNTAIN: OK. I'll try.
SMITH: Ailsa Chang...
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Yeah.
SMITH: ...Every conference has a rock star that everyone wants to meet. Find the Beyonce of the produce conference.
CHANG: The Beyonce. All right.
SMITH: All right, PLANET MONEY. Let's go fruit this.
SMITH: Oh, guacamole.
OK. We have the PLANET MONEY team out scouring the produce show for stories that will amaze and delight. They're looking for the hot veggie, the cool fruit. Our senior producer - he's doing an expose on food waste. Producer Sally Helm is trying out new food technology. And then we have the PLANET MONEY intern, Alice Wilder.
As an intern - and we do pay you. But as an intern, you're always interested in free food. So your assignment is to find all of the things that they are giving away free samples at this festival and to keep a list.
ALICE WILDER, BYLINE: I've been training for this my whole life.
SMITH: So all of the reporters went off to finish their assignments. And after the show was over, they came back to me to check in and tell me what they found. First up, Ailsa Chang.
SMITH: Ailsa Chang was looking for the big kahuna, the rock star of this show. And give me the lay of the land. Like, what is out there?
CHANG: All right. All right. All right. So what you see at this produce show is booth after booth. And sitting in these booths, waiting to be noticed, are the growers, the distributors, the manufacturers of the produce products. But roaming freely and deciding which booth to pay a visit to are the buyers. And those are the big guys in this show. These are the Walmarts, the Costcos, the Shoprites. And they decide, ultimately, which produce from these booths are going to end up in the customers' hands. And you can spot these buyers right away because they're wearing these shiny, red ribbons on their name tags that say buyer. And a lot of them travel in entourages.
You're surrounded by people.
TONY STALLONE: Yes, we are.
CHANG: Who are you?
STALLONE: (Laughter) My name is Tony Stallone.
CHANG: Tony Stallone? Like Sylvester Stallone?
CHANG: Any relation?
STALLONE: He keeps claiming there is. So I don't know. I haven't checked it out yet (laughter).
CHANG: You haven't checked out your family tree?
STALLONE: Well, truthfully, it is a second cousin twice removed.
CHANG: Oh, my God. He really is part of the family.
STALLONE: Yeah, he is (laughter).
CHANG: Tony Stallone is the produce buyer for Peapod. They do a lot of grocery deliveries around the country. And his family has been in the produce business for more than a hundred years.
STALLONE: It's in my DNA.
CHANG: He's standing next to this booth displaying these gorgeous tomatoes. And he's explaining...
SMITH: And he's fruitsplaining (ph).
CHANG: He's fruitsplaining. He's telling me exactly how you have to store tomatoes to keep them the freshest. And this is a guy who has been examining tomatoes since he was 5 years old.
SMITH: So when I walk down these aisles, like, I just get overwhelmed. What is Tony's strategy? Like, what is he looking for exactly here today?
CHANG: Well, Tony has a line. His strategy is...
STALLONE: Let the show come to me.
CHANG: And what he means by that is he's letting the show show him the hottest, latest trends in the produce business. He has another line. People don't buy products now. They buy solutions.
SMITH: I feel like Tony Stallone has a lot of lines.
CHANG: (Laughter) He has a lot of lines.
CHANG: And another line he has is, millennials can't cook.
CHANG: That is a problem that he needs to find a solution for. So what Tony is looking for at this show is how to deliver the freshest, most ready-to-eat produce to millennials, so they can eat it right away. And the two items he's focused on right now are berries and avocados because Tony is convinced that if a grocer can keep their berries and avocados beautiful and ripe, the customer is going to buy the rest of their produce at that store.
SMITH: That is 100 percent true. That is how I live my life. Like, literally, I will walk into a store because I see raspberries and avocados out front. And they look perfect.
CHANG: They're the hook - berries and avocados. So I'm watching Tony work the show. And it's such a joy to watch him because everybody knows him, and he knows everybody. And he glides into this booth with these avocado guys - West Pak Avocados. They are, like, the avocado whisperers. They have mastered the complicated science of getting every avocado to the exact ripeness that each customer wants.
SMITH: And are they having, like, this complicated, scientific discussion?
CHANG: Yes. It gets really geeky. And Tony is enthralled and impressed, and he's thinking he wants to do a deal with these guys. And at that moment, Robert, I noticed something. Because Tony Stallone is in that booth, other people start looking at this booth. They start checking out these avocado guys because Tony Stallone is just standing there. It's like he's anointed this booth with his magic.
(SOUNDBITE OF RIZZI MEYERS SONG, "DANCING IN THE SUN")
CHANG: And then Tony says, give me a call, kind of walks off. Apparently, he's really excited about some new way cauliflower's packaged.
SMITH: Cauliflower's about to get some magic. Thanks, Ailsa.
CHANG: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF RIZZI MEYERS SONG, "DANCING IN THE SUN")
MALONE: Hey, Robert.
SMITH: Kenny, may I say you are looking trim and fit and healthier?
MALONE: Thank you.
SMITH: Which is natural because your assignment was to find the new superfood. Every year, there's some sort of superfood - the pomegranate, the kale, the goji berry - something that will reverse the ravages of time and allow you to live forever.
MALONE: And I have found it.
SMITH: Hand it over.
MALONE: No, I'm not giving it to you.
SMITH: (Laughter) OK.
MALONE: You have to listen to the journey.
SMITH: OK. Go ahead.
MALONE: All right. I'll be back.
So I got the assignment, walk away. And it dawns on me. I don't know what a superfood is.
Superfood. Corn is good. Brussels sprouts. Cherries.
I have no idea.
SMITH: It is a little bit of a made-up concept.
MALONE: Yeah. I learned that very quickly. It's not a scientific category. It is a marketing tool.
How's it going? My name's Kenny.
One of my first stops was a place that claims to have the original superfruit...
MALONE: ...The POM Wonderful company.
SMITH: This was a pomegranate juice that was super popular five, 10 years ago - maybe still is.
MALONE: So I walk up to this booth. And I say, look, I need your help. And then you say, well, why don't you interview the president? She happens to be right here. Are you the president of POM Wonderful?
ELIZABETH STEPHENSON: President of POM Wonderful.
MALONE: Well, I think we should talk.
SMITH: Right there.
MALONE: Everybody who is anybody is at the New York Produce Show. You could just talk to them.
STEPHENSON: You know, when you think about it 15, 17 years ago...
MALONE: Elizabeth Stephenson explains that about 15 years ago, POM Wonderful was having trouble getting America to fall in love with the pomegranate.
STEPHENSON: Often committing to eat a fresh pomegranate is hard.
MALONE: It's a day's work. Let's be honest. It's a day's work. They pull these seeds out. It's a giant pain. And so they decide, let's just make it a juice. And then we can get people to try it easily. But we're not going to put it with the other juices. We're going to put it in the refrigerated section with the produce...
SMITH: Oh, nice. Yeah.
MALONE: ...Because produce is super healthy.
MALONE: And a year and a half later, they say, POM Juice was everywhere.
STEPHENSON: We still define that super-premium juice category that you find in the produce and that's healthy.
SMITH: So at this show, like, who is the next pomegranate?
MALONE: All right. So this tells me what I should be looking for in the next great superfruit. Number one, it needs to be juiceable, so people can try it for the first time easily.
MALONE: Number two, it helps to be kind of an unknown fruit because then it feels like we're discovering some ancient secret or something. And then number three, it has to be healthy. But you shouldn't make too many specific health claims because POM Wonderful got in a little bit of trouble for doing that a while ago. And so it's best to look for a food that you can just say has the antioxidants. We've got the antioxidants.
MALONE: Superfood, superfood.
So now I'm searching with a purpose. I see, like, dragonfruit. That's not quite right. I see starfruit. And it's, like, no, people know about the starfruit. There were these interesting little things called the gooseberries.
It's nice. It's a little tart.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Some people claim that it tastes a little like a tomato.
MALONE: I mean, I guess. It doesn't really taste like a tomato. It feels like a tomato.
And, Robert, I don't know if you remember this, but you totally interrupted my gooseberry experience.
SMITH: Gooseberry. What's a gooseberry?
MALONE: You seem to really like saying gooseberry.
SMITH: The gooseberries and the woozberries (ph).
Super name - maybe not a superfruit. Tell me you found one.
MALONE: All right. So last stop on this, I found it. And I'll just - I'll cut to the chase. I'm just going to give it to you.
MALONE: OK. Da da da da da da da da dum.
SMITH: What? Coffee fruit juice? No. That's not a thing.
MALONE: It's coffee fruit.
SMITH: Wait. What? Is it, like...
MALONE: Is it high in antioxidants? Yes.
SMITH: But is this...
MALONE: Is it juiceable? Clearly.
SMITH: Yeah, it is juice. But are these the berries that become coffee beans? Or...
MALONE: Coffee beans are the pit of a cherry, a coffee cherry.
MALONE: And the outside, the fleshy part, people call the cascara fruit. And a lot of companies would just take the bean and throw away the shell and the fruit. But now there are companies that are keeping that. And you can dry it up. You can make it into a tea. You could make it into a juice.
SMITH: Will it keep me awake? Is this a coffee substitute?
MALONE: Yeah. We thought we knew what a superfruit was. But this one has caffeine in it. It is a super superfruit.
SMITH: This is so awesome. Have you tasted it? How does it taste?
MALONE: I did taste it. But you should taste it. I brought you a whole bottle.
SMITH: Oh, my God. I mean, it's kind of sour. It's a little bit like cranberry juice, a little bit like POM Wonderful, actually.
MALONE: Yeah. So a portion of that juice is coffee fruit. Coffee fruit is apparently actually very bitter. So they cut it with some pineapple juice or some other juice, and that's how they make it drinkable.
SMITH: Oh, wait. They put sugar in it. Pineapple juice is basically sugar.
MALONE: Listen. The task was not to find a sugar-free drink. You asked me for superfood.
SMITH: And you got it.
MALONE: You got juice. You got antioxidants. You're going to stay young forever. We can't back that claim up with science. But there you go.
SMITH: Cheers, Kenny. Thanks.
MALONE: Yeah, man.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAWRENCE WONG, GLENN HERWEIJER AND BEN SUMNER'S "REFLECTION IN THE WATER")
SMITH: Alex Goldmark, remind me of your assignment.
ALEX GOLDMARK, BYLINE: Waste. I got super into it right away.
SMITH: And when you're walking around a show that's all about freshness and ripeness and bounty, and you start asking about rotting garbage...
GOLDMARK: The produce people do not like to talk about waste. The banana man - he just said smoothies.
SMITH: (Laughter) Smoothies are the answer. Yeah.
GOLDMARK: But first, let me tell you what I learned, like, big picture. Thirty to 40 percent of the American food supply is wasted every year.
SMITH: Throw it out.
GOLDMARK: Maybe fed to cows, but just basically left in the ground or goes to trash. And the big reason that I heard for this was looks. People just don't like in America to eat ugly food.
SMITH: I will go through a hundred bananas to find the right one. It's true.
GOLDMARK: And so we're fussy. We're superficial. And there was this thing that I started to hear a lot.
PETE CREAGER: Yeah. We say eye appeals, buy a peel.
GOLDMARK: That's a slogan you guys say in the company?
CREAGER: Well, no, in our industry. You know, if you look at what's on the shelf, if it looks pretty, and it's got great color, well, it must be good.
GOLDMARK: That's Pete Creager from Booth 338 at Robinson Fresh, a giant company - like, one of the top five produce producers in America.
SMITH: So if waste is because people don't like ugly products, then the answer would be to somehow make things look prettier on the shelf?
GOLDMARK: No. It's actually the opposite. It's to make American consumers look into their soul and treat fruits like they would like to treat people and value them for what's on the inside, not on the outside.
SMITH: (Laughter) That didn't work so well with people. How is that going to work with fruit?
GOLDMARK: They're leaning in hard. They have made an entire line of products called Misfits. They're just owning it. So, like, the cucumber that has a yellow stripe on it or the grapes that are too small - they take them, and they put them in a bag. They put the word misfits on it, and then they sell it at a discount. And other companies are doing something pretty similar. Like, pears that were too small before - now they just call them kid-sized and put it in an adorable bag.
SMITH: I would pay much more for kid-sized pears.
GOLDMARK: So I thought OK. The produce industry has figured out the waste problem. And then I had to totally change my mind.
SMITH: But why?
GOLDMARK: Because I met someone from our tribe.
BRAD RICKARD: So I'm Brad Rickard. I'm an associate professor in the Applied Economics and Management School at Cornell University.
SMITH: You found an economist. I love it. They're hiding everywhere.
GOLDMARK: Not just an economist - a food waste economist. He's, like, the perfect man, just walking around the produce show. And so Brad says, yeah, yeah, yeah. Ugly food - that is a problem. But he says there's a way bigger problem. The biggest place where food is wasted is in our kitchens. And he says that's because food has gotten so cheap relative to everything else that people will buy food just to make sure it doesn't run out without even planning to eat everything.
SMITH: We buy too much of it.
GOLDMARK: He does these surveys in the store where people are making the decisions to buy food. And what he's found is that we approach buying food with a different logic than buying other things.
RICKARD: Unlike many other things we buy, people, in the back of their mind, already know that they're going to waste a lot of food. They just know that some percentage of this food that they buy or some percentage of this food that they have in their household will be wasted.
SMITH: I totally do this. Like, I will order a bunch of stuff, thinking I'm going to cook all weekend, and then we'll go out to restaurants the whole time.
GOLDMARK: And then your spinach withers up and gets small and wilty. And you can't use it.
SMITH: Gets liquid.
GOLDMARK: Yeah. So the way he sees it is it's just kind of rational to waste food at these prices.
SMITH: Wow. Way for an economist to, like, depress us all.
GOLDMARK: Welcome to PLANET MONEY.
SMITH: Thanks, Alex.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SMITH: Oh, no way. No way. Oh. Alice - Alice Wilder, our intern, has three bags. This is all the free stuff you picked up at the show.
WILDER: Yes. This is it.
SMITH: Unbelievable. Your task (laughter), which I thought was a simple task, was to go get free samples. And so I imagine you eating, like, a few chips and a few slices of apple. But you've taken everything from the show.
WILDER: I misunderstood my assignment. I thought it was get as many free items as possible. And I really embraced it.
SMITH: So there are entire vegetables here. What is that?
WILDER: This is, like, a South American potato, malanga. This is a sparkler pumpkin. This is an avocado, a persimmon, a pomegranate, cherry tomatoes, dragonfruit. It's an orange. That's a bag. Oh, this is a pumpkin-pie-making kit.
SMITH: Oh, my God. A pumpkin-pie-making kit. That's so good. Alice, I'm going to have you keep listing things off. We have to check in with a few of the other reporters. But keep doing it. Keep going.
WILDER: Got a couple T-shirts in a bunch of different sizes. I got - I filled up a bag with Tupperware...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SMITH: Next up, our intrepid producer Nick Fountain. His assignment was to find a fruit or vegetable having a hard time - a bruised fruit or vegetable.
FOUNTAIN: I found them.
BOB CATINELLA: Oh, it's pears. Is this NPR? Hey. What's going on?
BOB KOEHLER: How you doing?
CATINELLA: Good. How are you?
KOEHLER: What's your name?
CATINELLA: My name's Bob. What's your name?
FOUNTAIN: That's right, Robert. Two Bobs (laughter).
SMITH: Three Bobs if you count me.
FOUNTAIN: Bob Catinella and Bob Koehler.
CATINELLA: Bob squared, as we're known in the industry.
FOUNTAIN: So the Bobs - they represent the pear growers' association for Washington and Oregon state, which is where most of our pears come from.
SMITH: So the other Bobs are telling you that pears are having a sad, sad time?
KOEHLER: Yeah, absolutely. I've worked in the produce industry for more years than I care to say. And it's a misunderstood fruit.
SMITH: Misunderstood fruit. OK. Let's put pears on the therapy couch. What is the trouble with pears?
FOUNTAIN: People think of pears as just misshapen apples. So they go to the store, and they grab a fresh pear. And they take a bite out of it. And it's just sort of hard and scratchy. And then they think that they hate pears forever.
SMITH: And the next time they go the store, they just buy an apple.
CATINELLA: Yes, sir.
FOUNTAIN: Do you think apples have it easy?
CATINELLA: They do. Apples definitely have it easy.
FOUNTAIN: Apples don't need an instruction manual, but pears - you've got to wait. You've got to to wait seven to 10 days for them to be at peak ripeness.
SMITH: You need a calendar.
FOUNTAIN: Sure. Or you have to know when it's ready. So they've invented this brilliant slogan.
CATINELLA: Check the neck.
SMITH: Check the neck, meaning, like, what? Like, shove your thumb into the neck part?
FOUNTAIN: Yeah. Press right near the stem. And if it gives a little bit, it's ripe.
FOUNTAIN: They've given up on your generation, Robert.
SMITH: OK (laughter).
FOUNTAIN: They're going on to the next generation.
KOEHLER: Because it's so easy. I mean, even you go to school, and you talk to little kids. You tell them, when you go home tonight, you tell your parents that you know how to tell when a pear is ripe. And it's by checking the neck.
GOLDMARK: It's so easy. Check the neck.
SMITH: I love that when it comes to to fruit and vegetables, we're letting children lead the way.
GOLDMARK: There's a bigger lesson here, Robert, that the Bobs are trying to teach us all. Patience is a virtue.
SMITH: OK. All right. Thank you, Nick Fountain.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SMITH: So while the rest of us were wandering around, tasting delicious fruits and vegetables, Sally Helm had a very different assignment. Sally, your assignment was to find a gadget - something nonedible...
SALLY HELM, BYLINE: Nonfood product.
SMITH: ...That somehow enhanced the food process.
SMITH: What'd you find?
HELM: So I was walking around the aisles, and I got a text from my fellow producer Nick Fountain. And he was like, OK, Sally, 615. Booth 615 is your booth.
Six sixteen, 615 - hello.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: What's happening?
HELM: What's up? What is this?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: So we make a 6-inch-by-6-inch laminated hologram programmed with specific sets of frequencies to inhibit mold and bacteria growth.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Plus, we can also replicate the frequency of the Earth to make the food want to stay alive.
SMITH: I saw these guys.
HELM: You saw Rick and R.J. Hassler?
SMITH: They started to talk to me about frequencies, and I walked away.
HELM: I did not walk away.
HELM: I stayed for 15 minutes and talked about frequencies. They told me all about this card. And I brought it. I brought it.
SMITH: Oh, you got it?
HELM: So it says Food Freshness Card on the front. It's, like, a little square, gold, laminated card.
SMITH: It looks like one of those holographic stickers you would get from a gum machine.
HELM: Yes. And at least according to Rick and R.J., what it does is - you know how strawberries, like, go moldy really quickly - three or five days or whatever?
HELM: So you put the Food Freshness Card in your fridge with your strawberries or whatever. And if it's within five cubic feet, then these frequencies that are coming off the card will inhibit the mold-growing process.
HELM: And, Robert, I will say I have not had time to talk to the proper food scientist safety experts.
SMITH: Slash anyone who knows how science works.
HELM: Slash anyone (laughter). But this is - I - so I'm just going with Rick and R.J. here. They took me through the card. And they pointed out - and do you see in the corner there are, like, these shapes?
SMITH: Oh. It's like circles and triangles and cubes.
HELM: OK. Yeah. this is a crucial part of what's going on.
Why does it have...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Sacred geometry - it goes into the science behind it. Like, Metatron's Cube is one of the sacred geometry pieces in there. You know, the Flower of Life. There's different layers in the hologram.
HELM: When you say the frequencies are embedded in the card, what do you mean?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Embedded is - we program inside nanocrystals inside.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: OK. Again...
HELM: This is, like, the future.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: This is. Welcome to the future. We use Tesla technology every day.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: We use Tesla technology every single day.
SMITH: Metatron's flower.
HELM: No, well, Metatron's Cube, The Flower of Life.
SMITH: Using technologies stolen from Elon Musk in a Tesla.
HELM: They're nanocrystals.
SMITH: Nanocrystals. Is this a cult?
HELM: It is - that's an interesting question. It's possible. No. Listen. I did ask these guys, are you insane?
SMITH: I'm sure you were more polite than that, knowing you.
HELM: So I'm sure you must get this all the time, but this sounds crazy.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Oh, all the time. We get it all the time. But we say, stick one in your fridge and then call us.
SMITH: You know, I gave you the assignment.
HELM: You did.
SMITH: you brought me a piece of technology...
HELM: Tesla technology.
SMITH: ...Maybe from an alternate universe of the future. I don't know. But we're going to test it out.
HELM: Yeah. I'm going to buy two bunches of tomatoes.
HELM: I'm going to put one in a file cabinet drawer on its own and one in a file cabinet drawer across the office with the Food Freshness Card. And we'll see what happens.
SMITH: We'll see. Science versus nanocrystals. Who shall win? Thank you, Sally.
HELM: Thanks, Robert.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SMITH: Hey. Do you want an entire team of nosy economics journalists asking awkward questions at your show or your convention or your wedding or bar mitzvah? We are available. Planetmoney@npr.org. The person who produced the produce show was Nick Fountain, with an assist from literally everyone on the team. And today at this time of year, a special appeal to you, PLANET MONEY listener - one of the best ways to support what we do at PLANET MONEY is to support your local public radio station. I got my start at a public radio station, KUER in Salt Lake City. I'm sure there's one where you live. So as you're thinking about your end-of-the-year donations, make sure you include public radio. You can find your local station at donate.npr.org/planetmoney. I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.
WILDER: A beer koozie and another mouse pad. Here's some potato chips from Idaho. This looks like a flat bread item that I put in the Tupperware. Have not eaten it. Here's a pineapple stress ball, some batteries, hand sanitizer. A pen. Do you have a car?
SMITH: I don't have a car.
WILDER: I don't have a car. I don't have use for this car charger. Here's a water bottle that says lead - load with confidence. A pen. That's a single pistachio.
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