Can Eating Ugly Fruits and Vegetables End Hunger and Food Waste?

Beauty is only skin deep is true for food, too.

Stopping food waste at the farm is a positive step towards ending hunger in the United States. Eating ugly fruits and vegetables is one way you can help.

Thinking about issues as far-reaching and multifaceted as hunger and food waste can be overwhelming. You may feel like you cannot do much about them. The thing is that even if a problem is huge and complex you can learn about a small aspect of it and then take action.

For this post, I chose eating ugly fruits and vegetables because I believe that our perception of what constitutes edible food influences our decisions all along the food chain.

This post provides a 30,000-foot look at hunger, food waste, and the environment so you can get a grip on the big picture. It also includes a section on food aesthetics and ideas about how you can participate in the ugly food movement.

For readers wanting more information, you can find links to reports, articles, and videos at the end of the post.

A 30,000-Foot Look at Hunger, Food Waste, and the Environment

I have a love hate relationship with data and statistics. Information is necessary for identifying problems, figuring out what is causing them, and measuring solutions to find out whether they are working or not. What worries me is that the people counted in statistics can too easily become just numbers in a database instead of living breathing people with lives and loved ones. Please keep this in mind as you review the information below.

Hunger

Over 42 million people in the United States live in a food-insecure household, which is government-speak for these people do not have enough food to eat on a regular basis. It is hard to get your arms around 42 million people (13% of our population), but chances are you know one or more of these 42 million people, even though you might not know they go hungry sometimes (one of these people could even be you).1

There are many reasons that people go hungry in the United States mostly having to do with not having enough money to buy healthy food or not having access to it or both. One part of the problem is that affordable fresh fruits and vegetables are not available and affordable for everyone.

Food Waste

The United States spends over $218 billion (yes, billion) growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food that is never eaten.Reducing food waste even 15% would be enough food to feed 25 million Americans.4

Farmers do not even harvest over 10 million tons of food a year.2 These fruits, vegetables, and other crops are left to rot in fields and orchards, fed to livestock animals, or sent to landfills. One in five fruits and vegetables do not get eaten, at least not by a human.3

Environment

Putting food on American tables eats up 10% of our total energy budget, uses 50% of our land, and gulps 80% of our freshwater, yet 40% of the food in the United States goes uneaten.4

Farmers apply tons of synthetic chemicals and toxins to food crops during all stages of growth including fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and a host of other substances intended to either promote growth or kill something. Land, air, and water pollution cause life and death problems like cancer in people, ocean dead zones, and bee colony collapse. 5, 6, 7

As you can see, these are serious and huge issues.

Next, let’s bite off a manageable chunk (pun intended) of the food waste problem that we can do something about.

Food Aesthetics – Picky, Picky

Your food selection criteria are highly influenced by the federal government and food distributors and retailers.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture issues voluntary food grade standards and most food distributors and retailers adhere to these standards even though they are not required to (in most cases).

These standards cover a wide variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy products, and grains, both fresh and processed. The standards determine what are acceptable sizes, shapes, colors, and other attributes depending on what kind of food it is. The general idea is that standardizing food quality and appearance makes it easier to market food and provide customers with what they want.

Standards probably do make buying and selling food easier for everyone in the food system, except perhaps for farmers. Unfortunately, it also creates picky food shoppers and leads to mountains of edible food decomposing in fields and landfills across the country.

In all likelihood, you grew up eating these calibrated fruits and vegetables. I did. Today as you and I push our shopping carts around the produce section in our local grocery stores our learned preferences and biases influence our selections.

Faced with a scarred nectarine or a three-legged carrot we may frown and not actually view it as an edible piece of food. It is not our fault; after all, we received training from a powerful industry with a massive advertising budget.

Beauty is Only Skin Deep is True for People and Food

It is not easy to overcome automatically avoiding foods that do not match your preconceived notion of acceptable food appearance. Like changing any habit, it requires making a different choice repeatedly until it becomes routine.

Take a potato for instance. Once you peel, cook, and mash a potato it looks like mashed potatoes regardless of what the whole potato looked like at the store. If you consistently buy potatoes with odd-looking bumps, at some point they may just register as potatoes in your mind instead of imperfect potatoes.

Below are photos of some ugly carrots I bought. I sliced two for a snack and cut up a few to use in a stir-fry vegetable dish. Can you tell which of the ugly carrots I used?

Wider acceptance of so-called ugly fruits and vegetables could lead to several positive outcomes.

  • Farmers – harvesting ugly crops and selling them at discounted prices increases revenue and reduces food waste in the field.
  • Cooks and Chefs – buying and incorporating ugly food into recipes and menus reduces costs, builds market demand, and helps spread the word.
  • Food Shoppers – requesting and buying ugly produce builds market demand at the retail level making fresh fruits and vegetables more widely available and affordable.
  • Food Retailers – expanding offerings to include ugly food brings in additional revenue, creates goodwill, and reduces food waste.
  • Food Non-Profits – keeping more food in the system at a lower cost enables organizations to provide healthy and nutritious food for a larger number of hungry people.

Okay, sounds good, now what?

What Can You Do?

You have an opportunity to join the fledging ugly food movement in the United States and take part in reducing food waste and building market demand for ugly and affordable fruits and vegetables. Here are a few ideas to help you get you started.

  • Buy ugly produce when you can find it at the store or farmers market. Do not worry if you cannot bring yourself to buy a really weird looking fruit or vegetable, start with something easy like a curvy cucumber.
  • Ask the produce manager or store manager at your local grocery market if they have imperfect looking produce for sale and if not ask them to try stocking it.
  • Sign up for an ugly food box service that delivers to your home or workplace or that you can swing by and pick up. Keep it local.
  • Make a tasty dish using ugly produce and share your recipe and before and after pictures with your friends and family and on social media.
  • Volunteer to pick ugly crops donated by a farmer, pack boxes with ugly fruits and vegetables at a food bank, or help make meals with ugly produce at a shelter.

Your willingness to buy and eat ugly fruits and vegetables may not end hunger and food waste in the United States, but you can be part of the ripple that can turn into a wave of change.

You never know, you might begin to look at a bruised apple or a container of leftovers in a whole new light.

Featured Image at Top: Pile of Raw Ugly Carrots – Photo Credit Shutterstock/farbled

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References

  1. Food Security Status of U.S. Households in 2015, USDA Economic Research Service, 2016
  2. A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent, ReFed, 2016
  3. How Californians Are Fighting Food Waste on the Farm, at the Store and at Home, by Danny Jensen, KCET, 04/05/17
  4. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, by Dana Gunders, NRDC, 08/2012
  5. As Trump’s EPA Takes Shape, Here’s Your Pesticide Cheat Sheet, by Elizabeth Grossman, Civil Eats, 02/02/17
  6. “Dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico is biggest ever, by Ian Hendy, The Conversation, 08/11/17
  7. Is America’s most common pesticide responsible for killing our bees?, Alison Moodie, The Guardian, 02/05/17

Resources

5 Reasons to Shop at the Farmers Market

First Time Farmers Market Shoppers You are in for a Treat.

Shopping at the farmers market is an environmentally friendly and fun way to buy fresh and delicious food. It is worth your time and money.

August is an ideal time to try shopping at your local farmers market. At this time of year, you are sure to find a good selection of delectable freshly picked fruits and vegetables that are in season where you live and all of the 8,600 plus farmers markets spread across the country are open, even those that close during cold and snowy months.

Perhaps you are thinking that you would love to be able to buy a vine-ripened tomato that actually tastes like a tomato but you are concerned that shopping at the farmers market will be too time-consuming and/or expensive.

In this post, I will attempt to convince you that it is worth your time and money to expand your food shopping horizons to include shopping at the farmers market.

Your Body Will Thank You

Intellectually, you and I know we need to eat fresh and nutritious food to stay healthy and help our bodies heal when we get sick or injured. Sadly, today’s food landscape makes it challenging to eat a healthy diet.

A major barrier to healthy eating is that humans have a predisposition to crave sugar, fat, and salt, which were rare in the diets of our early ancestors but are now available everywhere 24 hours a day.

Fortunately, for you and me, fresh fruits and vegetables are front and center at the farmers market making it easy to choose healthy food without the distractions found in a typical supermarket like huge pyramids of boxed soft drinks, aisles crammed with overly processed and junk foods, and the dreaded candy shelves at the checkout counter.

Empower yourself to eat a healthy diet by shopping at the farmers market.

Freshly Picked Produce Stays Fresh Longer

At the farmers market, you can buy the freshest fruits and vegetables available (outside of your own garden); sometimes harvested the same day you buy them. This means produce will stay fresher once you bring it home and properly store it, which reduces food waste and saves you money.

For example, if you purchase a bunch of freshly picked basil at the farmers market it will stay fresh in your refrigerator for a week or more and it may actually cost less than at the supermarket.

The basil you purchase at the supermarket has already been on the road for several days to a week, endured multiple handling sessions, and hung out in the produce section for an unknown number of days by the time you come along and purchase it. No wonder store bought basil often starts wilting and turning brown around the edges after just a few days in your refrigerator.

Think about this. In the past week, what food did you toss because it was past its prime or spoiled? When you chuck uneaten food into the garbage, you are wasting all the resources and people power that went into growing and harvesting it and throwing your money in the trash.

Buy Fruits and Vegetables Grown for Deliciousness versus Durability

From a fruit and vegetable deliciousness standpoint, supermarkets just cannot compete with the farmers market.

Fresh Ripe Peaches from the Farmers Market
Fresh Ripe Peaches from the Farmers Market

Farmers who sell directly to customers can focus their energy on growing delicious fruits and vegetables, whereas a supermarket must also be concerned with durability.

Supermarkets require fruits and vegetables that can withstand mechanized harvesting, shipping by the ton, grading for size and appearance, boxing and crating, and traveling long distances. Unfortunately, many durable produce items are not tasty.

A few immediately come to mind like tomatoes, strawberries, and peaches. You can probably think of others.

When I was a kid, we ate freshly picked delicious peaches all through the summer from a few peach trees my dad had planted in our backyard so I know what a fresh peach should taste like.

As an adult, after years of buying peaches at the supermarket that were usually mealy, bruised, tasteless, or all of the above, I finally decided to quit buying peaches and wasting my money.

Then one day a few years ago, I discovered a stall at the farmers market selling baseball-sized peaches that were juicy, tangy, and sweet and tasted like a peach should taste. Now, I buy peaches from the farmers market when they are in season.

Granted these peaches do cost more per pound than peaches at the supermarket but there is no comparison in freshness and taste. Do you ever splurge on lattes, specialty juices, or ice cream treats? Why not splurge on peaches.

Savor Locally Produced Food Products

In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, many farmers markets also sell eggs, cheese, meat, bread, olive oil, nuts, and prepared foods made by local people often using ingredients they grew themselves.

Snack foods sold at the farmers market are not highly processed junk foods made to last indefinitely on store shelves. If you purchase a bag of tortilla chips or a package of candied almonds, chances are you will be able to recognize all the ingredients on the label.

Trying food products from the farmers market is fun, tasty, and helps support your local economy, not some faceless corporation.

Support Sustainable Agriculture

When you shop at the farmers market, you have an opportunity to actually meet and talk with the people who grew the food you are buying.

These farmers live and work in your community or region and they have a vested interest in practicing sustainable agriculture. They often grow a variety of seasonal crops suitable for the climate in which they farm, which is good for maintaining healthy soil and keeping pests down. Many of the farmers grow and sell USDA certified organic fruits and vegetables meaning they are grown without pesticides or herbicides and are GMO-free.

Fresh Ripe Organic Strawberries from the Farmers Market
Fresh Ripe Organic Strawberries from the Farmers Market

Food at the farmers market travels short distances reducing fossil fuel use and air pollution. Also, since it does not have to survive the supermarket durable food process, the food sold at farmers markets saves on water, energy, and resources.

When you shop at the farmers market, you are supporting local farmers so they can make a living and be good stewards of their land.

I hope that at least one of the above reasons for shopping at the farmers market appeals to you and you are ready to give it a try.

Tips for First Time Farmers Market Shoppers

You may already know when and where there is a farmers market near you. If not, type “farmers market” and the name of your “city” into your web browser.

Getting ready for your first trip to the farmers market is easy.

  • Grab your reusable shopping bags.
  • Make sure you have some cash (small bills are usually appreciated).
  • Bring your adventurous spirit along.

Imagine yourself strolling through the farmers market carrying your reusable shopping bags chock full of freshly picked and delicious fruits and vegetables, a loaf of freshly baked bread, and a jar of homemade spaghetti sauce. Now, off you go.

National Farmers Market Week is August 6-12, 2017 so some markets may be having special events or promotions making your first farmers market visit, even more, fun and interesting.

Featured Image at Top: National Farmers Market Week 2017 Logo – Image by USDA Agricultural Marketing Service

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