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

Reduce Comes Before Recycling

Recycling is like dieting. We do it afterwards. We recycle after buying and using stuff and we diet after overeating.

Bales of Plastic Containers Awaiting RecyclingReduce is the first of the 3 R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) for good reason. There is no need to recycle packaging or products we didn’t buy or use. Calories we didn’t eat do not need to be worked off at the gym.

Manufacturing, transporting, and distributing the products we buy and use consumes energy, water, and resources, and generates waste. So does collecting, transporting, and processing recyclable materials.

Sometimes I wonder if we use recycling to give ourselves a free pass to continue doing what we’re doing. As long as we recycle we don’t need to change. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of recycling and I’m not suggesting a moratorium on shopping. I am proposing we be mindful about what we buy and challenge ourselves to reduce first and then recycle.

Food Shopping – Packaging Reduction

After observing the volume of recycling our small household amassed each week, I started pondering ways to reduce the amount packaging coming into the house. Buying food is a weekly activity so seemed like a good starting point. Over a period of time some of the changes we’ve made include:

  • Buying more food in the bulk in aisle.
  • Using reusable shopping and produce bags.
  • Cooking with whole foods more and packaged foods less.
  • Purchasing larger sizes when it makes sense (I draw the line at a gallon of mayo in the fridge).
  • Buying locally grown food as much as possible.

For this post, I decided to review the impact these changes have had on what I buy and eat for breakfast and grade myself on whether packaging was reduced or not.

Breakfast Revamp – Packaging and Calorie Reduction

No one would describe me as a morning person. For me, weekday breakfasts have to be fast and easy to prepare.

Coffee

We’ve been buying whole coffee beans and grinding them at home for years. Previously we used the bags provided at the grocery market to transport and store the coffee beans and recycled the empty bags. I began saving the bags, refilling them at the store, and recycling them when they wore out. At some point it occurred to me we could transport Author's Coffee Mug, Bulk Coffee Beans, and Bulk Non-Dairy Creamercoffee beans in one of our reusable mesh produce bags and store them in a container from our collection at home, a large one that held nuts in a former life works well.

Buying and storing coffee now involves zero throwaway packaging.

Packaging Grade: A

Non-Dairy Creamer

I used to buy non-dairy creamer in 22-ounce plastic containers and recycle the empties. That changed when I spotted my creamer brand in a 3.5-pound container while shopping at a warehouse store. Now I buy the large canister and use a 22-ounce container as a dispenser.

The canister holds over 2 ½ times the amount of creamer with only an incremental increase in additional packaging and a 30% reduction in cost per serving. Overall there is less material to recycle.

Packaging Grade: B

Cereal

My standard cereal is a name brand that comes in a cardboard box with a plastic liner. I’ll eat granola, seemingly the only cereal available in bulk in our area, but I’d prefer something else. I decided to skip this one for now and tackle it later.

Packaging Grade: Incomplete

Milk

Author's Packaged Cereal, Milk Carton, Bowl and SpoonI was in the habit of buying milk by the half-gallon, but I mostly use it on cereal so frequently ended up pouring spoiled milk down the drain. I admit I’m picky about milk taste so other people might have drunk it. I switched to buying milk in a third of a quart size. It’s not as economical but it eliminates milk waste and the smaller container means less to recycle.

Packaging Grade: Pass

Fruit Juice

An 8-ounce glass of fruit juice contains 110 to 170 calories (orange at the low end and grape at the high end). I know eating whole fruit is more nutritious and has fewer calories. But fruit juice tastes good and I used to drink it every day.

When I was a kid, we mostly drank juice made from frozen juice concentrate and I carried the habit into adulthood. When we moved to our current home, I discovered the grocery market in our small town generally had a great selection except for frozen juice. I started buying juice in cardboard cartons and plastic bottles.

Eventually throwing empty juice containers in the recycling bin began to bother me and I was also looking for ways to cut calories without giving up my Friday chocolate bar. At first I just drank 4 ounces of juice instead of 8, fewer cartons and calories. One morning I decided to stop drinking juice. Now I eat whole fruit instead and occasionally drink juice. I don’t miss drinking juice every day, and it’s a treat when I do.

Whole Fruit - Apple, Orange, and BananaChanging from fruit juice to whole fruit reduced recycling and saves hundreds of dollars a year. I figure I’ve eliminated at least 25,000 calories from my annual intake, the equivalent of 7.1 pounds. This is a good thing.

Packaging Grade: B+

Reduce First Then Recycle Challenge

The above exercise demonstrates small changes can benefit the environment as well as our waistlines and wallets. It shows that unintended consequences can be good and change isn’t a linear process. If we get stuck in one area, we can move on and come back to it later.

Take a look at your own food shopping and buying habits and challenge yourself to reduce first and then recycle. Share your ideas and accomplishments in the comments section.

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