Food was the gateway to a more mindful and sustainable approach in my life, and it happened very much by chance. Shortly after my move to San Francisco in the early 90s, I found myself having adverse physical reactions to a wide range of fruits I had always eaten. When a roommate suggested I try their organic counterparts from the corner market five blocks from our flat, I was set on a new path. Around that time, too, I was introduced to Whole Foods. The retail chain didn’t have a location in San Francisco just yet, and someone brought the then car-free me to their understated outpost in Mill Valley, CA, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. “Beautiful food for beautiful people,” was how the store and its customers were described to me.
And my, oh my, the produce was beautiful. Similarly-sized and arranged in impeccable formations, it seemed sacrilege to interrupt the peppers and heads of lettuces – many varieties which I’d not seen before – in order to selections to my basket. But more than beautiful, the produce was kinda sorta strangely perfect. Perfect produce? How on earth was that possible?
One simple word: marketing.
As crazy as it sounds, it comes down to aesthetics and how to appeal to what customers supposedly want as prescribed by the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service Fruit and Vegetable Programs Fresh Products Branch. Yes. That’s a thing.
Without trying to rewrite what is described so brilliantly by Rochelle Billow in Are the Beauty Standards for Fruits & Vegetables Unfair?, this sums it up: “…the USDA grading system is based on sizing and conditions of ripeness. In other words, the factors supermarkets consider when purchasing produce are appearance, longevity, and packability—taste and nutrition don’t even make the list.”
Astounding, right? Even more astounding is this:
She continues, “All fruits and vegetables are held to incredibly high aesthetic standards when it comes to stocking supermarket shelves. It doesn’t matter if they’re organic or conventional, nutritious or vitamin-deficient, flavorful or bland—if they don’t meet the criteria established by the government and by the supermarkets themselves, they won’t—can’t—be sold to the majority of American consumers. And if they can’t be sold, they won’t be eaten.”
So wait, what happens to them? A lot of food ends up wasted or composted. And what a toll that takes on farmers! But more on that in a moment.
Intrigued by the whole notion of USDA’s standards, I wandered over to their website. It’s a trip. You can search by vegetable or fruit and read things like this:
“At least 75 percent of the nectarines in any lot shall show some blushed or red color including therein at least 50 percent of the nectarines with not less than one-third of the fruit surface showing red color characteristic of the variety.
“That discoloration occurring as yellow to brown staining of the skin shall not be considered russeting and shall be considered as causing serious damage only when seriously detracting from the appearance of the nectarine, and that speckling characteristic of certain varieties shall not be considered as russeting or discoloration.”
The section on carrots hasn’t been updated since 1960 and is a type-written document with really poor photographic reproductions. Strangely, it reminds me of my senior thesis complete with illustrations photocopied from books that I glued in. Under “Shape” for carrots:
“The U.S. No. 1 grade requires that the carrot roots be “fairly well formed” which is defined to mean that the carrots are not so crooked or otherwise misshapen…”
“Forked carrots, such as those illustrated in figure 3 are U.S. No. 1. These carrots can be separated approximately as designated by the lines drawn and are considered ‘fairly well formed’ because there is practically no loss in the ordinary preparation for processing.”
So I guess that means the delicious and organic fantastically imperfect nectarines and carrot I procured from the farmers market are not of a certain quality or prescribed beauty? I think not.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You can’t judge a book by its cover. Go ahead. Choose your favorite proverb. These are lessons we were taught while growing up. These are lessons for life. They are also lessons that, due to forces we may not have been aware of, we have to learn again.
Perfection is a prescribed ideal. As I learned during my years studying art history, “The ancient Greeks viewed perfection as a requisite for beauty and high art.” The media and advertising perpetuate these ideals, though there are tangible signs they are starting to change. Earlier this year, the New York Times’ T Magazine ran an article about Ashley Brokaw, “the fashion industry’s leading casting director, she is largely responsible for the latest trend of unusual, unconventional beauties.” Trends in one sector seems to have a way of trickling into other streams of life, so when it comes to what we buy to feed ourselves and our families, I keep hoping the unusual, imperfect, and unconventionals become more of the norm.
From the local co-op to the farmer’s market I frequent, signs have literally been pointing the way. From cosmetically challenged and teenage veggies (do you know a perfect teenager?), we’re presented with imperfection as perfectly acceptable options.
When you consider the fact that a quarter of all produce is destined for compost heaps or landfill because they are less than perfect, it makes you wonder what the alternatives may be. Farmers need to be creative. An apple farmer sells imperfect apples to food processors for mere pennies so they can be turned into jarred apple sauce and not go to waste. Or they start a new venture that turns the fruit into delicious hard ciders.
Just across the Bay Bridge, a new CSA has sprouted and it’s name is music to my ears: Imperfect Produce. As their homepage says, “We believe every fruit and vegetable deserves to be loved. That’s why we give you the chance to buy ugly produce straight from the farm that costs 30% less than produce in grocery stores. By purchasing Imperfect, you get affordable, healthy, delicious produce delivered to your door. And you can feel good about your purchase knowing that you are reducing food waste on farms and protecting the environment.” They currently serve Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville, and I hope the love grows over the bridge and city borders.
Can you see me jumping for joy over here? People are jumping for joy all over the place. In fact, they are jumping for joy all over the world.
Actions by Feeding the 5000 are bringing people together to create a communal meal using food that would otherwise be wasted. My partner documented and wrote about a Feeding the 5000 event that took place during the Ecocity World Summit 2013 in Nantes, France, by asking, “How hard is it to serve a nutritious meal to 5000 people, using dumpster-bound ingredients only?” I kicked myself for not joining him on that trip!
Endfoodwaste.org has an awesome campaign called @uglyfruitandveg that helps you “find where ugly is being sold all around the world and how to get ugly where you live.” At the time of this writing, they have an active petition asking two of the nation’s largest food retailers – Walmart and Whole Foods – “to add the ‘uglies’ to their store aisles so you can save money, fight hunger and help the environment all in one.”
After you sign the petition (hint, hint), go find an imperfect piece of produce and give it a bite!