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

Related Posts

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

Organic Food – History

What do the Dust Bowl, World War II, and the 1970s energy crisis have to do with organic food? Perhaps more than you might think.

Definition of Organic as it Relates to Food

A discussion of organic food should begin with defining what is meant by the term organic as it relates to food. For our purposes, we will use the description of the USDA National Organic Program 1.

“Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”

20th Century Influences on Organic Farming and Food

Agriculture has been a 10,000-year-long experiment in growing plants and raising animals by trial and error. On the one hand, the use of synthetic chemicals and mechanization has enabled us to improve crop yields. On the other hand, these framing practices have resulted in nutrient depleted the soil, erosion, water pollution, “super” pests, and loss of biodiversity.

Organic farming is not a return to the old pre-industrial farming methods. It is a way forward that builds on what we’ve learned over several millennia. This post will explore how 20th-century historical events have influenced organic farming and food.

1930s – The Dust Bowl

In a dramatic and devastating manner, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s demonstrated the importance of conserving soil and maintaining biodiversity.

1930s Dust Bowl - Baca County, CO - Photo: D.L. Kernodle, Library of CongressDuring the 1800s and early 1900s, settlers trying to farm on the Great Plains dug up moisture-retaining prairie grasses and plants and replaced them with monoculture crops, they disrupted the soil with mechanized deep plowing and burned stubble leaving land dry and bare. These farming practices combined with severe drought and high winds literally blew away the topsoil of over 100,000,000 acres of farmland in the Great Plains region and displaced thousands of farmers.

The federal government responded to this calamity by creating the Soil Conservation Service under the USDA to oversee soil research and conservation projects across the country. Labor was supplied by the Civilian Conservation Corps formed to provide jobs during the Great Depression.

1940s – World War II

War often results in innovations and new products that find their way into civilian life. Sometimes these new products have unintended consequences and result in more harm than good. Like the proliferation of synthetic fertilizer and pesticide use after World War II.

"DDT is good for me-e-e" from 1947 USDA BulletinDuring World War II, U.S. factories were built to pump out munitions and synthetic chemicals like DDT for the war effort. After the war was over, some of these factories were converted to make pesticides and fertilizers. The government urged farmers to use these new synthetic chemicals to improve crop yields and assured the public they were safe. Crop yields did increase but so did water pollution, soil erosion, and death of beneficial insects, birds, and other animals.

Concurrent with World War II, several important works about organic farming were published.

  • Look to the Land by Walter James, 4th Baron Northbourne describes a holistic approach to farming and his view of the farm as an organism. Northbourne is said to have coined the term organic farming.
  • Cupped Hands Holding Humus - Photo: Maui Farmers Union UnitedIn his book An Agricultural Testament, Sir Albert Howard shares what he learned during decades of living in India, observing and working with traditional Indian farming methods. He believed humus was essential to soil health and could be manufactured from vegetable and animal wastes. Howard is often referred to as the father of composting.
  • Lady Eve Balfour published The Living Soil based on her research and results from the Haughley Experiment, the first long-term, side-by-side comparison of organic and chemical-based conventional farming.
  • American J. I. Rodale established an experimental organic farm in Pennsylvania, founded Rodale Press, and published Organic Farming and Gardening magazine.

1960s – Silent Spring

The publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962 brought the dangers of widespread insecticide and herbicide use into the purview of the general public. It demonstrated how bugs and weeds quickly adapted to pesticides and came back even stronger, but the damage to plants, animals, and humans was long-lasting and sometimes fatal.

Carson’s chronicling of the effects of DDT eventually led to its use being banned in the U.S. in 1972.

1970s – The Energy Crisis and Environmental Legislation

1970s Energy Crisis - Gas Station SignThe 1970s energy crisis resulted from U.S. oil production peaking and political events around the world. People worried if they’d have enough gas to get to work and companies worried about having sufficient fuel to run their operations. Farmers had two concerns; having access to synthetic chemicals and adequate fuel to operate the mechanized equipment they now relied on.

At the same time, Americans were demanding something be done about air, water, and land pollution. This led to numerous pieces of environmental legislation being passed such as the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and Endangered Species Act.

Environmental issues and anxiety about food safety contributed to growing interest in organic food which was promoted through programs like “Know Your Farmer”.

1980s – USDA Organic Farming Study

Due to increasing requests for information on organic farming, and in light of energy shortages and public concern about food and the environment, the USDA embarked upon a study of organic farming in 1979. The results and recommendations were documented in a 94-page typewritten report published in July 1980.

During the study, the team found common concerns as noted in the excerpt below:

  • Increasing costs and uncertain availability of energy and chemical fertilizer.
  • Decline in soil productivity and excessive soil erosion.
  • Degradation of the environment from erosion, sedimentation, and water pollution from agricultural chemicals.
  • Hazards to humans and animals, and food safety from heavy pesticide use.
  • The demise of the family farm.

“Consequently, many feel that a shift to some degree from conventional (that is, chemical-intensive) toward organic farming would alleviate some of these adverse effects, and in the long term would ensure a more stable, sustainable, and profitable agricultural system.”

The team recommended conducting a study of conventional vs. organic farming, creating organic farming education programs, and establishing an interagency committee on organic agriculture.

1990s – Organic Foods Production Act

Enthusiasm for organic food continued to grow and by 1990 almost half the states had organic food standards in place, but there was little coordination between states and a fair amount of confusion on the part of consumers.

Organic StrawberriesIn 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act to establish a national standard for organically produced agricultural products and facilitate the interstate commerce of organic food. It took over a decade to establish the final national organic standards which were implemented on April 21, 2001.

In the next post, we’ll examine the Organic Foods Production Act and what the USDA Organic label means.

Related Posts

References

  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture – National Organic Program – What is Organic?

Resources