Something Rotten

In early June, Eric Gooden showed up at the loading dock outside Roots and Fruits, the venerable and fast-growing organic produce wholesaler in northeast Minneapolis. As he had for the past four years, Gooden, who is a volunteer with the food charity Sister's Camelot, expected to pick up a fresh load of donated vegetables, fruits, and the like for distribution to the needy.

When he entered the warehouse, Gooden got a surprise. The worker on duty, he recalls, informed him that Roots and Fruits would no longer provide Sister's Camelot with free produce. When he inquired further, he says, there wasn't much of an explanation. Roots and Fruits management, the worker glumly explained, had simply decided to "discontinue food bank." Gooden says he tried to reach someone on the phone for elaboration, but had no luck.

For Sister's Camelot, the abrupt shift in policy wasn't a light matter. Providing healthy, naturally grown foods to the poor is at the core of the charity's mission. Since 1997, Roots and Fruits had been Sister's Camelot's main supplier of organic produce.

Other people involved in various charitable food distribution undertakings soon found themselves turned away, too. For over a year, Northeast resident Mo Donohue and some friends had made weekly visits to the big warehouse on Industrial Boulevard, where they loaded up still edible--but no longer saleable--produce. Unlike Eric Gooden, Donohue wasn't part of any official organization. But, she says, she and her friends only distributed the produce to people in need: single mothers, underemployed artists, railroad tramps, and the like.

In the view of many employees at Roots and Fruits, the longstanding, open-door food bank policy dovetailed nicely with the ethos of the Roots and Fruits' project. As a worker-owned company, the wholesaler has long enjoyed a progressive reputation. "It was one of the things that attracted me to the place. I thought it was great," says David Lang, who worked in Roots and Fruits' warehouse for the past six years.

As Lang tells it, a change in management coupled with the business's rapid expansion spawned a dramatic change in the workplace culture. The new regime's attitude, he says, was that "if anything was leaving the building without being sold, they considered it stealing."

Lang's interpretation is echoed by Roots and Fruits' former quality control administrator, Jessica Lindner. In her position at the company, Lindner oversaw the sorting of produce, culling out everything that was deemed unfit for sale. On June 1, Lindner says, her supervisor told her that the food bank would be discontinued. "I asked him why, and he really didn't have an answer," Lindner recalls. "Then he said, 'We've had theft problems.' And I said, 'How is taking away the food bank going to reduce theft?' That doesn't make sense."

A few days later, Lindner says, she and a co-worker were both dismissed on the grounds of insubordination. A couple of weeks after that, warehouse worker David Lang joined the exodus. There were a few reasons, he says: anger over the firing of his friends, disgust at the changing work culture, and, most significantly, outrage over what he regarded as a wanton waste of food. "We were dumping out everything we couldn't sell, thousands of pounds of tomatoes and other stuff," Lang says. "Why throw it away when you can feed somebody with it?"

According to Troy Ludgate, the general manager at Roots and Fruits, the new policies were the direct result of theft and abuse by employees. "It was admitted that they were directing foods to their friends," Ludgate says. "And people who were not legitimate charities were being given the opportunity to sort through product."

Nonetheless, Ludgate insists that Roots and Fruits intends to keep giving away surplus product, provided that those charities can demonstrate their legitimacy. Asked about Sister's Camelot--in fact, a registered charity--Ludgate allows that he possesses no information about the group. He says he might reconsider giving to Sister's Camelot should the organization provide him with the appropriate documentation.

Still, Ludgate concedes that Roots and Fruits has not made surplus foods available to charities of late. He says this is because the company has cut down on waste; in summer, he adds, there is less to give away because the food spoils more quickly, leaving little that can be eaten.

Jessica Lindner scoffs at such claims. "There's just no way that's true," Lindner says. "There's always that in-between food--food that is edible but not shippable. It didn't just disappear."

Mo Donohue concurs. In the weeks after Roots and Fruits quit making its surplus foods available to her informal distribution network, Donohue continued to visit the Roots and Fruits warehouse. Every few days, she says, she would stop by and scrounge through the dumpster for viable produce, regularly loading up on vegetables, cheese, fruit, and eggs.

That, Donohue says, came to an end a few weeks ago when Roots and Fruits instituted yet another new policy: crushing the dumpster-bound food in a new industrial trash compactor.