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Odd Jobs: “Strange Fruit Sunday”

Odd Jobs: “Strange Fruit Sunday”

The food pyramid suggests we eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. The hard sell comes in getting my two children to consume the recommended daily allowance. So far I’ve found that two things help widen their culinary horizon: 1) telling my 9-year-old son the end result of eating asparagus and 2) a tradition called “Strange Fruit Sunday;” we take the kids to the supermarket and let them pick the weirdest fruit they can find.

It also helps to talk about the produce guys like they’re mysterious workers (not unlike Oompa Loompas), culling fruits and vegetables from the farthest reaches of the world, as if by magic. I know better, but still I was curious about what I could learn from working in produce.

Schnucks has been part of the grocery business in Columbia since the early 1970s. In the ‘90s it moved from Broadway to the current location on Forum Boulevard.

When I arrive at 6 a.m., I find David Guthrie, the produce manager, taking inventory. He shows me where the employees keep their coats and gives me a Schnucks shirt and apron.

Each morning employees remove any item that is slightly damaged or about to go bad. This collection is donated to the Food Bank. High water content items like lettuce spoil more quickly than others. “Rule of thumb when sorting produce: If you wouldn’t buy it, don’t expect anyone else to buy it,” David says.

Assistant produce manager Kevin Crowe, a 32-year Schnucks veteran, arrives and begins sorting items. In a world where people often move from job to job, many of the full-time produce employees have worked for Schnucks more than 20 years. The department retains four full-time and four part-time hourly employees. Each one is a member of Food Handlers Local 655. When hired, employees are required to join the union. In turn, the union sets the pay scale. Raises are based both on merit and the number of hours worked.

There are more than 950 items in the produce department. Kevin says he’s tried nearly all of them. He has a wide range of knowledge, both practical and historical. “The kiwi fruit was originally named ‘Chinese gooseberries’ but didn’t sell well until a California company renamed it kiwi fruit,” he tells me. “They used to be rare; now we sell them every day.”

David sets me up restocking the apple cart. Turns out the produce workers no longer use those impressive but impractical stacked pyramids of produce. Instead they opt for the basket approach. They receive a delivery of fresh produce every day. Earlier today, five pallets of produce were delivered to the back cooler, which is kept at 40 degrees. Schnucks also has an intermediate cooler kept at 55 degrees for tropical produce.

On average, each fruit box weighs 40 pounds. Each of the metal carts used to carry them can hold six to eight boxes. I load six boxes on my cart. No matter how you stack it, pulling the 240 pounds through the twists and turns of the aisles is a frustrating exercise. I restock apples and pears, rotating the riper fruits to the top of the baskets. In a way it’s meditative.

Richard Aitken, another full-time employee, breaks down the pallets and sorts the back stock. I pull the plastic off each bundle and hand him boxes. Then we sort the berries. It sounds pleasant. However, as you handle the oozing, moldy berries, they literally disintegrate in your hands staining them a grotesque fuchsia color. “Yeah,” David says, “no one likes to sort the berries.”

I feel the tentative throb of my mold allergy as we finish up the berry sorting with a thorough hand scrubbing. David says I’m lucky I missed pumpkin season. Pumpkins and watermelons are his least favorite items to stock—watermelons because they explode when dropped and pumpkins because the stem bristles on the muddy gourds tear up your hands.

We finish the day stocking bananas and dried fruit. We pull the browner bananas and bag them at a lower price. Then we pull the single or double stems for a “quick bite” basket. David casually asks if I have a fear of spiders as we empty a box. As it turns out, banana boxes sometimes come with spiders, and ours has one. A small one, David adds. Fortunately, none of the bunches I inspect have mascots. Dried fruit in plastic bags seems like a good way to end the day.

My shift ends at 1 p.m. I turn in my shirt and apron. On my next “Strange Fruit Sunday” I’ll come armed with a little more knowledge about how to choose the best produce. Serving unripe persimmons is no way to foster the five-a-day habit in your kids. Did you know they were supposed to be brownish and a little squishy? Just ask the produce guy; he knows.

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