It’s human nature to gravitate towards pretty, towards the aesthetically pleasing. Research shows that even infants are drawn to beautiful faces; so is it any wonder that when we’re faced with fruits and veggies at the grocery store, we naturally pick up the ones that are perfectly round, unblemished, evenly colored, unbruised–pretty? Not really.
But just as in life, the old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” applies here as well. Just because an apple has spots, a tomato is oddly shaped, or a potato has more eyes than the rest of the bunch, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t taste just as good or hold as much nutrition as its pretty compadres. Any farmer, from commercial to backyard enthusiast, can tell you that tomatoes right off the vine aren’t always pretty, but they’re the best tasting tomatoes around. How do hot houses even produce so many perfectly-shaped, evenly red orbs? It seems impossible! And it is. So, step beyond all industry-mandated standards of beauty with us, folks! There’s so much more there!
See, with the perfect come the imperfect–that’s just life. According to the U.N., a third of food worldwide is wasted through being binned or left to rot. A THIRD! And the National Resources Defense Council says that 40% of food in the US goes uneaten. Why? Very often because it’s not pretty enough for consumers.
Some people are trying to cut this waste of perfectly good food by offering it at reduced prices rather than just throwing it out or refusing to buy it for their stores. In France, a grocery store called Intermarche, is offering ugly produce at rates reduced by 30 percent. Here’s one of their clever marketing slogan:” An ugly carrot makes a beautiful soup.” And isn’t that true? Apparently, the European Union has regulated aesthetic food standards to the point that ugly produce doesn’t stand a chance, and a study by Swedish and Dutch governments estimates that 89 million tons of food a year are wasted across Europe. A small farmer in Portugal stated that of the 2,000 pounds of tomatoes he produces every year, a quarter are dumped because of quality standards.
There’s a cooperative in Portugal called Fruta Feia (Ugly Fruit, started in November 2013 by Isabel Soares) that is trying to change the perception of imperfect produce by specifically selling fruits and vegetables that do not meet government standards of appearance (she can get around European legislation because Europe’s marketing rules only apply to foods that are packaged or labeled). They now have 420 regular customers and a waiting list of 1,000. They have sold 21 tons of food at 2 two distribution centers in Lisbon. Clearly, people are ready and willing to take another look at their food with a more forgiving eye.
But this is all happening in Europe? Where’s the ugly fruit going in your neck of the woods? Maybe you should ask. The next time you hit your local farmer’s marker, strike up a conversation with vendors about what happens to their produce that isn’t pretty. Do they sell it, throw it away, use it to feed livestock, give it to food banks? Just where does it go? Maybe you could even ask if they’d be willing to sell it. Ms. Soares says that it wasn’t always easy to get farmers to sell her their ugly produce. They were suspicious; “I think some suspected that I was an undercover sanitary inspector,” she said. But what do you have to lose by asking? It worked for Ms. Soares and her customers.
We know we’ll be taking a second look at the produce around us and putting aside our preconceived notions of beauty to see what lies at the heart of an ugly apple or squash or tomato, and we hope you will too. Next week, we’ll talk a bit about the environmental consequences of all that wasted food. How do you feel about less-than-perfect produce? Are you willing to look beyond the surface?