American culture wants “perfect” looking produce which is driving food waste in local, and large markets. The food wasted is not inedible, and it has nutrients, it just has a quality that is deemed unsellable. Consumers dislike produce that does not look the way they expect. This causes strict guidelines for the way produce looks in order to be sold. The U.S Department of Agriculture estimates based on Economic Research Service that producers waste 31 percent of food that could have been sold for $162 billion of profit, and fed millions of people in 2010. Food waste not only decreases produce able to be sold, it increases prices, as the supply gets smaller, and as demand for “perfect” produce increases.
Americans crave the uniformity seen in produce markets as they put value on aesthetic produce, these societal norms, and the market for produce is what is tightening the mold that fresh vegetables and fruits must fit into in order to be sellable, and how so much produce is wasted as a result of not fitting into the mold. Americans as consumers care that their fresh produce looks perfect — a bump on a squash, or a patch of green on a tomato will deter them from purchasing. This is why you see tomatoes, and avocados that are all the same size, and why all of the cabbage is the same shade of green. This does not lead to variety or biodiversity, as the systems that grow them are hyper-focused on aesthetics. Corporations will continue to purchase the same variety, striving to meet the advertised image of their product, as uniformity in the fast food they sell is valuable to them. Farmers are more likely to monocrop the more valuable produce so they may make profit, and throw away those that do not look sellable, thereby decreasing biodiversity and contributing to food waste.
Personally I would love to see more variety in supermarkets, at farm stores, and even on my plate at a restaurant. But I am not the average American; I have seen how vegetables and fruits grow, so I understand there is no difference in quality of produce when it does not look aesthetic. Some Americans would be upset if their cheeseburger has a yellow tomato instead of a red one, even if they taste similar. Working at Burger King, and at a local farm, I have seen a perfectly good onion get thrown away because it was too small to put on a burger. During harvest season, the farm I am employed at discarded 6 bushels because they were too wonky, short, long, or not orange enough. We sold 3 bushels of carrots, wasting approximately 66 percent of the harvest. Those carrots that did not meet the qualifications were thrown away. I stuffed my overalls full of very wonky, thick carrots and made the sweetest, most tender carrot cake later. They could have gone on to feed many people, and create baked goods, but they were wasted because of their ability to be sold.
The social cost of generating so much food waste is food insecurity in the community. My home town of Brattleboro, in Windham County, has the second highest food insecure rate in Vermont at 12.3 percent, which is 12.8 percent higher than the national average. Instead of having a large amount of food being thrown away, or not making it to the store because it does not “fit the script,” it could go to food banks, homeless shelters, or even produce markets could have sections for cheap or free produce, that is not sellable at full price. Some amount of the produce harvested at large or small farms will not meet qualifications for selling at full price, but that does not mean that it does not have value. I urge you to take another look in your local grocery store, go looking for diversity in your produce, and find a local farm stand to support.
It may not work to sell wonky produce to everyone as a way to reduce food waste, and feed the food insecure, as large buyers of produce for chains or restaurants want their products to be uniform in quality and quantity which leads them to rely on aesthetic produce, wasting all that is not. I believe that we could market the perfect produce as unrealistic, and support large chains to change their ways to serve a more diverse spread of fresh produce, that may not look “picture perfect.”
If we can change the way people see produce, if wonky became the new beautiful, if perfection was not the only thing that could be sold, we would not need to waste as much food, more people could eat for cheaper, and the ugly, the thick, the wonky carrots would finally have a home. Smaller markets and farms could have sections for the less than picture perfect produce, all the nutrients can be consumed by those who need, less food would be wasted, and less people would go hungry.