Why we need imperfect produce

Some friends have a subscription to a CSA called Imperfect Produce, which promises delivery of ‘ugly produce’ at well below market prices, because stores won’t buy it from the farmers that grow it. It reduces food waste (mimicking recent EU pushes to mandate grocery stores to reduce waste and encourage them to sell fruits and vegetables that wouldn’t have passed appearance standards) and it also, of course, helps farmers increase their bottom line, which supports small family-owned farms. The less produce you have to discard, the more viable your crops are, which is important when you have a very thin profit margin — initiatives like this help fight back on industrial agriculture.

It’s about more than that, though. Seeing imperfect produce also gives people a greater connection to nature and an understanding of how food actually grows, how farms work. Some of the produce I see coming into their kitchen is just oversized. It looks fine, but it doesn’t meet sizing standards. Sometimes it’s misshapen or has some discoloration. That’s really about it. None of this produce looks horrific and most of it I would totally pick up and buy at the market, and might actually actively seek out — that discoloration on melons can be a sign that they’re particularly sweet, and with eggplants billed per unit, I’ll take a big one over a little one any day when I know that the interior is likely to be basically identical.

I’m all for anything that supports small farmers, because industrial agriculture poses a number of threats to society and I believe that people should be able to work the land more sustainably on a small scale. But I also believe that many people find the world of actual food production quite abstract, urban farming and gardening aside. We won’t even get into the fact that most people don’t know about or don’t care to know about the origins of animal products and how they’re processed. Most people know very little about the produce they (hopefully) eat every day. They pick it up in the store and it’s there and they eat it, or they throw it away when they didn’t have time to eat it before it went off.

Produce can look ugly and still be perfectly edible, because it’s a natural product. Tomatoes come in different sizes depending on where they are on the plant, whether they were shaded by greenery, if they were crowded. Some might have discolorations from leaves or branches that hung above them. Could be sweeter or grainier than others. One bush, even a cultivar that’s been grown for decades, is going to produce a gradation of tomatoes, and we won’t even get into the one next to it. The same goes for carrots, for peas, for a slew of other produce items that people eat in the United States — and of course for those people never see, like the wheat used to make flour and the corn used to produce corn starch and a variety of other products.

When you grow produce at home, you see this firsthand. You see how one beet crowds another or the spacing on your lettuce goes awry so one plant gets more nutrients, and you eat misshapen things, things that are smaller or larger than each other, things that don’t quite look right. They’re fine to eat, and some are quite flavourful. Those tiny tomatoes are often a burst of rich, intense tomato sensation because their juices are concentrated. The shape of a strawberry doesn’t actually affect the sweetness level.

There’s a standardisation that happens with produce, though, including in the organic aisle (perhaps especially there, given the drive for industrial organic). It’s expected to fit within certain size parameters, to be precisely this ripe, this shade of brix. It has to be packable and shippable. It can’t have extrusions or divots or other flairs of personality. All of these things make processing, handling, and display harder, but grocers also assume that they make fruit less appealing to the public. And maybe they do — the public certainly hasn’t known anything other than precisely regulated fruits and vegetables, so naturally it might be surprised to encounter the variance found in nature.

The expectations of uniformity and sameness that arise here aren’t just about produce, but nature in general. Humanity cultivates these myths about what to expect from the world that surrounds them on the basis of what they’re most exposed to, which means that they’re afraid of nature as a wild, untamed thing, and part of the reason why is because it’s scary and varied. Trees change sizes and shapes. Spacing differs depending on the age of a forest, sun levels, the death of old trees and growth of new ones. Different shrubs and other understory plants creep across the ground, up the trunks. Nature has no interest in following standards, differing radically from the deeply eerie artificial forests in regions like Ireland that have largely lost their trees.

Imperfect produce should be in the stores because we need to reduce food waste desperately. And to support small farmers who cannot afford to lose part of their crops to picky appearance standards. But also because it’s the right thing to do in a world of sameness, to expose consumers to things that are different. If we can create a market for trendy exotic fruit, surely we can do the same for knobbly carrots.

Image: Produce Market, Patrick Feller, Flickr