Ever had funny looking produce show up in your garden? Did you eat the harvest even though it wasn't pristine? I'm going to guess that most of you did because you tended that misshapen little fruit. I'm also going to guess that it probably tasted just fine and maybe even delicious because it was fresh and it was a product of your labor.
Now think about the last trip to the produce aisle. Did you see any produce that didn't look perfect, or nearly so? Depending on where you shop, you'll be hard pressed to find a tomato that isn't almost identical to its neighbor or a zucchini that wasn't in the 6-7" range. What kind of magic happened on the farms where the grocery store produce was grown? No magic, just misfits who never got to leave the farm.
Somewhere along the way, we've come to expect pretty produce that is blemish-free and a particular size or shape. According to a survey conducted by the Food Marketing Institute "high-quality fruits and vegetables" was the most important factor to customers when they were selecting their primary grocery store.1 Given this information of course grocers are going to display only the best. I could certainly give you a ranking of my local grocery stores according to their produce selection and freshness. It's not that the unspoken ranking is on purpose but you can pretty much go to any store and a gallon of milk or box of breakfast cereal are going to be consistently the same.
So what's the big deal about expecting only the best? This expectation excludes millions of pounds of perfectly edible and nutritious produce from being sold and consumed. Depending on your location – that "misfit" produce may be donated to local food banks, fed to livestock, or composted; however it is usually less work to dispose of it.
Food wastage runs deeper than just the produce at the market. Think about those questionable leftovers in the back of the refrigerator or that wilted lettuce in the crisper, those items typically end up in the trash too. If food waste was a country it would be the third largest contributor of greenhouse gases – only after China and the United States.2 When food breaks down in landfill rather than compost pile, it creates methane which is more potent than carbon dioxide.
Next time you are out shopping inquire of your grocer or farmer's market vendor of the fate of the less than perfect edible goods. Consumers drive the market so which way would you like to go? For the frugal out there – the ugly produce may be sold at a lower cost. It can be a win for you, the farmer & environment.
What can you do:
- Ask about produce seconds at the Farmer's Market - let the farmers know you are interested.
- While shopping in the grocery store buy the less than perfect produce - especially if you'll use it in the next meal.
- Get involved in local food recovery efforts through the food bank or soup kitchens.