NOGALES, AZ — When it comes to food waste, the United States is the worldwide leader. Each year, an estimated 146 million tons of food ends up in landfills. Much of the discarded food comes in the form of bruised or "ugly" produce that is otherwise perfectly healthy to eat.
Meanwhile, nearly 40 million Americans live in food deserts without access to healthy, affordable produce. But one border operation is trying to change that, one blemished tomato at a time.
"You get your sweet bell pepper, your bigger bell pepper, your colored bell peppers, your green bell peppers," said Yolanda Soto, CEO and president of Borderlands Produce Rescue.
Palettes of produce are delivered all day, but with more than 40 different varieties of fruits and vegetables, what ends up at the Borderlands Produce Rescue are the rejects - not good enough for your supermarket shelf.
"All this produce comes into the United States and Canada for sale. Why something didn't sell is consumer-driven," said Soto.
Inside a warehouse in Nogales, Ariz., not far from the Mexico border, a unique food bank has been giving produce a second chance.
"We were able to save between 30 and 40 million pounds of produce annually from going to the dump," said Soto.
Each year, more than 120,000 trucks cross the border at Nogales carrying about $2.5 billion of fresh Mexican produce to the American market.
But before it can be distributed to supermarkets, much of it gets rejected for not conforming to the industry standard of perfection.
"So, because you like the perfect tomato, you're not going to go to the grocery store and purchase the tomato that is missing a stem or maybe has a little black dot on it," said Soto.
Millions of tons of rejected produce end up dumped in landfills, something that has broader implications for the environment.
As food rots, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas, accounting for 8 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions.
"That's why we sit here waiting for that phone to ring and say, hey, come and pick up this truckload of tomatoes or a truckload of eggplant," said Soto.
Borderlands rescues and then redistributes the produce at a heavy discount to people who would otherwise not be able to afford healthy, nutritious fruits and vegetables.
"We have a program that's called Veggies R’ Us. We will ask for a contribution of $5 for maybe 200 pounds of product," said Soto.
People often carry away crates of fruits and vegetables at every visit.
"It's very cheap and with the economy being the way it is, many people are without work, people are struggling and it's great that they are selling it cheaply," said Francisco Gonzalez, a Borderlands Produce Rescue customer.
Most of the produce that comes through here is perfectly good to eat. It may not be so pretty. A little battered and bruised like this organic red grapefruit, for example. But anything that doesn't get distributed by the food bank, they make sure doesn't go to waste.
Local ranchers collect what isn't fit to eat to use as feed for their livestock.
If 95 percent of the produce Borderlands receives is in good shape, it’s shipped to their partners across the country and is sold in 23 states under their produce travels program.
“This product is traveling all the way to Chicago or to New York or to Oklahoma. And so, it's got to be really good so that it can travel, make the trip, and then be distributed," said Soto.
In her 28 years running borderlands, Soto has watched the need grow.
She's hoping to grow too, saving, even more, produce -- so she can feed even more people.