Ugly is beautiful (and nutritious, too!)

Unhealthy and unrealistic body standards depicted in the media have come under much scrutiny lately, with many campaigns popping up that try to combat this important issue once and for all. The message is simple: beauty extends far beyond the molds of what we see on magazine covers and in movies. But have you ever considered that this same notion applies to the foods you eat? The unrealistic cosmetic standards we expect from produce may not result in low veggie self-esteem, but it does have severe negative impacts on our food system and precious resources.

One day's waste from a banana plantation in Ecuador. Although perfectly nutritious, these bananas had the wrong curvature.

One day’s waste from a banana plantation in Ecuador. Although perfectly nutritious, these bananas had the wrong curvature.

Take a walk down the aisle of Safeway or Berkeley Bowl and you’re likely to see shelves teeming with fresh and plentiful produce, all of which are the picture of perfection. Take a walk around the apple orchards and cucumber farms where such produce is grown, however, and you’ll see that they don’t actually come perfectly pretty. Where do the stubby cucumbers and knobby carrots go? Nowhere. About 20%-40% of food is wasted due to the aesthetic standards of food retailers. This means that cucumbers that are too small, bananas that have the wrong curvature, or apples with a knobby protrusion- all of which are just as nutritious as their handsome counterparts- never make it to store shelves. Meanwhile, in places such as Alameda County, 1 in 5 people must turn to food banks to feed their families. The discrepancy is disconcerting.

The repercussions, however, go beyond these moral consequences. The carbon footprint of wasted food is estimated to be 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gases released per year. This value accounts for the fertilizers and pesticides used during growth, to the end-of-life production of methane once these wasted foods decompose in landfills. Although composting can avert methane production, it is an infrequently used tactic. The figures of water and land usage are equally grim: almost twice the volume of Lake Tahoe and 28% of the world’s agricultural land are wasted on food that never reaches our tables. Much of this is due to our strict cosmetic standards.

There are many key players along the food supply chain that play a hand in this, from the farmers who abide by government regulations and the standards of grocers, to the consumers who cherry pick only the prettiest produce for their market baskets. Some countries are trying to change this. In response to low harvest yields, the European Union has minimized their rules on the cosmetic standards of produce, now only regulating 10 fruits and vegetables instead of 36. Grocers, however, may still hold higher expectations, which are largely a result of consumer demands.

Posters by Intermarché that celebrate imperfect produce.

Posters by Intermarché that celebrate imperfect produce.

Many organizations are hoping to spread the word that ugly is beautiful- and nutritious to boot. Intermarché, one of the largest supermarkets in France, has begun selling a line of imperfect produce called “The Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables”. With a 30% cheaper price tag and an ardent marketing campaign showing that their ugly produce makes soups and juices that are just as tasty, Intermarché has been very successful, and a pioneer for other grocers. Many non-profits have also taken a stance. Once such non-profit, Feedback, hosts educational campaigns called “Feeding the 5000”. These events are free communal feasts produced using food that would have otherwise been wasted. The first Feeding the 5000 event hosted in the US was last year in Oakland.

We should not forget to borrow, however, from the tactics employed by the advocates of healthy body image: let’s see more realistic images of men, women, fruits, and vegetables in the media. This is just what @UglyFruitAndVeg hopes to do by compiling cute and playful images of some wonky fruits and veggies, and people are taking notice. After all, healthy beauty standards can be, well, healthy!

Ugly Fruit and Veg hopes to spread the word that even mean looking apples are perfectly edible.

Ugly Fruit and Veg hopes to spread the word that even mean looking apples are perfectly edible.