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How this Mexico City food market is cutting back on food waste


Around the world, about a third of the food we produce goes to waste. And that may not look like much in your trash can at home, but at one of the largest food markets in the world, it is a startling sight. James Fredrick reports from Mexico City.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: Mexico City's Central de Abastos feels more like a city than a market.

GRACIELA DE PAZ FUENTES: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Half a million people visit every day, says Graciela De Paz Fuentes, the director of innovation and projects at this wholesale food market run by the Mexico City government. As we walk up and down seemingly endless aisles, she has a giddy smile on her face as she rattles off stats about this sprawling bazaar.

DE PAZ FUENTES: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Each day, she says, between 30,000 and 40,000 tons of food arrive here for sale, coming from every corner of Mexico and up to 20 countries.

DE PAZ FUENTES: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Tens of millions of people in and around Mexico City have food on their table thanks to the Central de Abastos. Each aisle holds a new wonder - beautifully orange papayas, glistening red tomatoes, spherical green limes stacked into a towering pyramid.

All of these produce stands are beautiful, and that's because they put the best looking fruit up front. But if you take a step behind the scenes, you see that lots of produce is about to go off.

Crooked cucumbers, bruised bananas and wilting greens sit sadly in the back of warehouses. Along every aisle of this endless market are dumpsters full of imperfect but often edible produce.

DE PAZ FUENTES: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Back in the quiet of her office, De Paz told me they knew they had to urgently address the tremendous amounts of waste. According to the U.N., about 30% of all the food produced in Mexico every year is lost or wasted.

LINA POHL ALFARO: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: 20.4 million tons of food go to waste every year, says Lina Pohl Alfaro, the representative for the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization in Mexico. But the real costs of wasted food are much higher, she says.

POHL ALFARO: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: The fertilizer, the farmland, the energy, and most of all, the water used to grow this food is also wasted. Pohl and the U.N. have been working with the Central de Abastos to stem the tide of food waste, a particularly urgent concern in Mexico, where almost 20% of the population doesn't have enough to eat. Jorge Gutierrez, whose business sells thousands of crates of bananas and watermelons here every day, says he thought of waste as the cost of doing business.

JORGE GUTIERREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Gutierrez says, I can't lie, when fruit gets overripe, it goes into the dumpster. But an initiative at the market is changing that. If Gutierrez sees his surplus of watermelons is about to go bad, he calls the Itacate to come pick it up. It's a word in Mexico that roughly means leftovers. It's a government office at the far end of the market.

This little warehouse is different from all the other ones here in the market. This is where food that's about to go off is donated, and then the city government distributes it to soup kitchens around the city.

Today, crates of onions and avocados and some ugly but edible papayas and guavas are waiting to go to a soup kitchen. Since its launch in 2020, food waste at the market has fallen almost a quarter, and donated food helped serve 80,000 meals a day at soup kitchens. Just across the street from the market is one of them. There, I spoke to 62-year-old Leonardo Bautista, who cleans onions and green tomatoes at the market.

LEONARDO BAUTISTA: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: He says, it's expensive to eat at the market - almost half his daily wage. These soup kitchens are a life saver for him. Hundreds of tons of food still end up in market dumpsters every day, but little by little, the Itacate is going some way to changing that. For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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