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

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4th of July – What Does it Mean to be an American?

Heritage unites us. Diversity is our strength.

Sometime during the 4th of July long weekend, take a break from your festivities to reflect on what it means to you to be an American.

I am all for whipping up a batch of your famous potato salad, or competing in a sack race with your kid, or dipping your toes in the ocean to celebrate the 4th of July. I am also for spending a few minutes contemplating what it means to be an American, which entails both rights and responsibilities.

In previous years, for 4th of July posts, I have railed against the American consumer label, suggested we declare our independence from harmful corporations, and proposed the right to a habitable planet as a new addition to the Bill of Rights. This year, I found myself drawn to the Statue of Liberty and thinking about what it means to be an American, today, as a member of a global society.

First, let’s remind ourselves of some of the salient facts about the Statue of Liberty and then contemplate being an American.

Statue of Liberty Brief History

Liberty Enlightening the World Poster 1884
Liberty Enlightening the World Poster, 1884

“The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World” was a gift from the French people to the people of the United States to strengthen ties between the two countries and promote democracy.

Imagine the difficulties the French people had to overcome to finance, build, and then ship the 151’1” tall bronze statue in parts across the ocean in the nineteenth century. The United States encountered its own problems raising money and then constructing the enormous base that supports the 156-ton statue.

Originally, the intent was to unveil the Statue of Liberty in 1876 to commemorate the centennial of the Declaration of Independence but only her torch-bearing arm made it to the U.S. in time. The completed Statue of Liberty was dedicated ten years later on October 28, 1886.

The Statue of Liberty gained federal protections in 1924 when President Calvin Coolidge exercised his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 by designating the statue and its site, called Fort Wood at the time, as a national monument.

During the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the War Department to turn over control of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and the rest of the island, known as Bedloe’s Island, to the National Park Service.

Bedloe’s Island was renamed Liberty Island by an Act of Congress in 1956 and nearby Ellis Island was added to the Statue of Liberty National Monument by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

The Statue of Liberty underwent a massive restoration project in the 1980s and she was rededicated on her centennial in 1986.

To this day, people around the world recognize the Statue of Liberty as a symbol, perhaps the symbol, of freedom and democracy.

Statue of Liberty Sonnet

As part of a fundraising effort for the statue’s pedestal in 1883, Emma Lazarus penned the now famous sonnet below. In 1903, her words were inscribed on a plaque and placed on the wall of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This beautiful and powerful poem speaks to the essence of what it means to be an American.

What it Means to be an American

We are all immigrants. Either you are from another land or your ancestors were. If you are a Native American, even your ancestors started out somewhere else, although it was a long, long time ago.

Today, the United States of America is home to a wondrous mix of people all seeking freedom, opportunity, equality, liberty, independence, democracy, and a chance for happiness. This is our heritage. Our diversity is our strength.

The healthiest ecosystems are the ones with a myriad of different species of plants and animals living together. Sometimes they compete with one another and sometimes they cooperate, but somehow they manage to find a balance for the good of the overall community.

It is going to take the kaleidoscope of American people all working together with other people around the world to grapple with global warming and to learn how to live sustainably on Earth. There is no Planet B.

We have our American heritage to guide us, but at the moment, we seem to be out of balance with an excess of competing against one another and not enough cooperating.

I wish I could wave a magic wand that would help Americans remember who we are and what we can accomplish when we work together, but alas, I do not have one. Yet, I am an American and I can do something.

This may sound silly or even ridiculous but I believe our country could use an influx of kindness, especially towards people who have dissimilar opinions, hold different beliefs, or disagree with us. I know that I could be more kind and I want to be. The good news is that neither you nor I need to wait even a moment to be kind to another person.

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” —Amelia Earhart

This 4th of July, let’s celebrate being Americans and make a pledge to never miss an opportunity to be kind. We are the United States of America (the key word being united) so let’s act like it.

Featured Image at Top: Statue of Liberty Holding Torch and Tablet of Law – Photo Credit iStock/EG-Keith

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