How I Fell In Love With Ugly Food

While grocery shopping one day, I realized I’d spent close to 30 minutes just in the produce section, meticulously choosing the best-looking apples, bananas that were ripe, but not spotted, ears of corn with perfectly aligned kernels. I admit, I’m picky about my produce. But I bet I’m not the only one that rejects the slightest bruise, blemish or mark on my fruits and veggies. 

How did we get this way? Could it be because we are living in a society where everything is filtered, where beauty is rewarded, where supermarkets reject foods that don’t adhere to a certain standard, where everything is shiny and bright?

I’ve also seen how my pursuit of perfect produce has impacted my kids. When I pack their lunches, I make sure to include the plumpest tomatoes, crispest blueberries, cucumbers without any dents or scratches. But one day when my daughter refused to eat an avocado that was turning slightly brown, I knew I had to change my ways. I realized I was unconsciously raising my children to accept society’s norms of perfection and that these perceptions can have a devastating impact on our environment.  

In the U.S, up to 40 percent of food produced is wasted every year. Most of this waste ends up in landfills that create dangerous greenhouse gases. Around 20 percent of food waste is produced directly at the farm because this so-called ugly food may not meet certain cosmetic standards set by grocery stores, yet are still perfectly consumable. Meanwhile, 48 million Americans live in food-insecure households.  

On a recent night in San Francisco, I attended a dinner party to raise awareness about this growing problem. The event was called the Salvage Supperclub and it is the brainchild of food waste activist Josh Treuhaft, who decided to create a unique, immersive experience as a conversation starter around food waste. It was an intimate gathering of 16 people dining on a table made from reclaimed wood, all within a cleared-out dumpster. The chef, Pesha Perlsweig, prepared a six course meal with food that would have otherwise gone to waste.

Perlsweig sourced some of the evening’s ingredients from Imperfect Produce, a delivery subscription service that specifically sells “ugly” fruits and vegetables. Boxes of produce might contain organic crooked carrots or knobbly sweet potatoes for 30 to 50 percent of the price that one might pay at a traditional market.   

I was blown away by Perlsweig’s creative dishes made from food the industry considers trash including stuffed wilted kale, ugly eggplant and squash ratatouille, and a delectable banana doughnut made from the actual peel of a banana. Before each course, Perlsweig offered guests tidbits and tips about how we can reduce our food waste. Did you know that if you cut off the end of a limp carrot or celery stalk and place it in water it will become firm again? 

After the evening’s dinner, I became inspired to rethink the way I shop for and consume food, to embrace the imperfect, the ugly, the unique. My actions have inspired my daughter to think differently as well. One morning, while she was helping prepare her school lunch, I noticed her choosing a handful of cherry tomatoes with slight blemishes. “They’re special,” she said.  

Here’s hoping these small changes in our perception might make a big impact on our world.

Watch more of Laura Ling’s reports on Seeker. Follow her on Twitter @lauraling.

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