As farmers market season gets into full swing across much of the country, think about this next time you’re riffling through the bins: Are you being prejudiced when it comes to picking out your produce?
Beyond the natural instinct we probably all have to choose that perfectly plump red ripe tomato over its slightly bruised bin mate, we’re also awash in all manner of media that scrupulously, methodically weeds out the imperfect, the blemished, the weird, and the warty to showcase only the most photogenic produce—whether it’s the placards at your local grocery store touting “farm fresh” veggies or those lush, centerfold-worthy cornucopias featured in all manner of food mags. But this obsession for perfection, the culinary equivalent of those airbrushed celebs grinning at you from magazine covers in the checkout lane, comes at a surprising social and environmental cost.
A landmark report on food waste from the Natural Resources Defense Council a couple years ago found that of the 40 percent of food that gets pitched in the garbage every year in America, a significant portion is discarded simply because it fails the looks test.
“One large cucumber farmer estimated that fewer than half the vegetables he grows actually leave his farm and that 75 percent of the cucumbers culled before sale are edible,” the report states. “A large tomato-packing house reported that in mid-season it can fill a dump truck with 22,000 pounds of discarded tomatoes every 40 minutes. And a packer of citrus, stone fruit, and grapes estimated that 20 to 50 percent of the produce he handles is unmarketable but perfectly edible.”
That this situation is no less acute in Europe shows it is a prime example of a #firstworldproblem. The EU wastes 89 million tons of food a year, in part because of tight regulations that govern the appearance of produce sold in stores. But as The New York Times reports, one woman in Portugal is working “to break the dictatorship of aesthetics.”
Six months ago, Isabel Soares started the aptly named co-op Fruta Feia, or “Ugly Fruit,” a sort of CSA for aesthetically challenged produce. Now with a staff of just three people and a few volunteers, the group has amassed more than 420 registered customers (with 1,000 more on the waiting list), who pay the equivalent of about $7 for a membership fee plus $5 a week for eight pounds of imperfect fruits and vegetables that might otherwise go to waste.
Soares sources her produce from local farms, such as the tomato operation about 45 miles south of Lisbon run by Paulo Dias, who supplies one of Portugal’s largest grocery chains. Dias estimates that in the past, he’s had to dump about a quarter of the 2,000 pounds of tomatoes he grows each year because they’re too ugly to be sold in stores. Today Soares buys the lumpy tomatoes for a 50 percent discount and passes those savings on to her co-op’s members.
“Any extra income helps,” Dias tells the Times, but “it also makes me feel good to know my tomatoes aren’t wasted and that people who perhaps have little money get to eat something that is just as good as if they could afford the supermarket.”
“The EU norms are based on the mistaken idea that quality is about appearance,” Soares tells the Times. “It’s of course easier to measure the exterior aspect rather than interior features like sugar levels, but that is the wrong way to determine quality.”
Our collective penchant for picture-perfect produce isn’t the only thing that we could stand to reexamine in relationship to the burgeoning local food movement. In an essay provocatively titled “What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong” that appeared two weeks ago in the Sunday New York Times, chef Dan Barber argues that in spite of our newfound love for the quaint family farm, all too often we really don’t understand how those operations work.
He points to his own enlightening experience with a farmer named Klaas Martens in upstate New York. Barber had grown enamored of a rare variety of emmer wheat that Martens grew, and he visited Martens’ farm hoping to discover the secret behind this “intensely sweet and nutty” grain—but he ended up having a different experience altogether. “I realized I was missing the point entirely,” Barber writes. “The secret to great-tasting wheat, Klaas told me, is that it’s not about the wheat. It’s about the soil.”
Martens diligently rotates his crops to build better soil, but that means planting unsexy things like beans, mustard, and barley—crops that Martens often has to sell at a fraction of the cost of the emmer wheat (typically for livestock feed), if he can sell them at all.
“In celebrating the All-Stars of the farmers' market—asparagus, heirloom tomatoes, emmer wheat—farm-to-table advocates are often guilty of ignoring a whole class of humbler crops that are required to produce the most delicious food,” Barber writes. He argues that we need to start figuring out how to use the less celebrated crops—things like millet, rye, and cowpeas that farmers plant in rotation to enhance their soil— if we’re going to support local farmers.
I would argue, like Isabel Soares in Portugal, that that includes not turning up our noses at the oddest-looking specimens of the coming summer’s harvest.