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What You Need to Know About the Ugly Food Movement

Once you understand this, you'll never think of food the same again.

I had the privilege of attending a talk by a group of Mexican avocado producers in 2015. They were in a fairtrade avocado co-operative and were doing pretty well, all things considered. But the woman who manages the cooperative talked about a missed opportunity around reducing the farm's waste. 

"When we grow avocados, there are as many sizes of fruit as there are fingers on your hand," she explained poetically, holding her hand up with her fingers stretched wide. "And supermarkets will only accept size 2 and 3 avocados. What are we supposed to do with the other 3 out of 5 avocados that we grow?"

She went on to describe avocados so large that a single one would make enough guacamole for a party, and tiny avocados that are so rich in flavour that they really ought to be considered a delicacy—and certainly not "ugly food."

What she was describing sums up the trouble with food consumerism and the place of the ugly food movement. On the one hand, we have skyrocketing food prices and folks who can't properly nourish their families, and on the other hand, we have avocado producers who are literally being told that 60% of their nutritious, high-quality avocados are garbage because they're not the right size.

But it's not just avocados. And it's not just that folks aren't investing in imperfect foods. In the grocery near my home, you can now find a line of produce titled Naturally Imperfect and this is "No Name" brand's attempt at selling ugly food. While this is obviously better than nothing, I can't help but notice that the produce is, well...pretty much perfect. A bag of red delicious apples marketed under Naturally Imperfect standards is comprised of perfectly-shaped and flavourful apples that are simply a little smaller than the giant ones we've grown used to. A package of Naturally Imperfect cremini mushrooms was considered ugly because the edges of the mushroom cap separated slightly from the stem, so you could see the fan of spores underneath. I guess that kind of indecency needs to be reserved for other species of mushrooms?

And don't get me wrong; it's great that these foods are finding their way into shopping carts. But they're not ugly. So what happens to actual ugly food? You know, the two tomatoes that grew together, or the carrots that have two legs? In the current landscape, we can't even imagine these.

Every few days, whether the produce moves or not, supermarkets switch it out for fresh produce so that there isn't rotten food on the racks. And when they do that, some supermarkets are responsible enough to package the food up and slap a discount sticker on it and hope people will make banana bread out of those bananas, or juice those oranges whose skins have grown dry. But I've noticed that sometimes—not always, but sometimes—the produce that ends up on the discount rack is there because it's got superficial imperfections. The eggplant is a bit too small, or the lemon has small scabby areas on its skin. And it begs the question: would this food be here if we were willing to buy those items first instead of saying to ourselves, "Their lemons don't look very good today, so I'll make something else for dessert."

When we won't even buy the scabby lemon unless we have to, of course the farmers aren't even sending in the actually ugly produce.

It's estimated that a third of the food we produce is never actually eaten. This estimate is even done after we consider that some retailers donate near-expiring food to food banks and shelters. And in a world where folks are going hungry and struggling to afford the price of food, how do we justify throwing away a third of the food we grow? How do we justify charging as much as we do for avocados when three fifths of them are going in the garbage right off the bat?

When I started gardening as a teenager, I learned that the standard of perfection on grocery produce stands is outrageous. Almost nothing that came out of my garden looked that perfect and uniform, and yet it was the most nourishing and delicious food I'd ever eaten. Nowadays I farm organically and please believe me when I say that much less than two thirds of my produce would pass the supermarket's standards. Only about half would even meet the standards of farmers' markets, and they're more lax.

What you need to understand about the ugly food movement is that it's not only necessary, but also not really even happening in a substantial way yet. What we're seeing in the mainstream isn't ugly food being consumed; it's industry trying to redefine for us what our standard of ugly should be. And because the average person doesn't farm, they don't know any better.

I farm. I know better. And I challenge you to do what you can to push the ugly food movement forward. Maybe it's a small step like buying the tiniest cabbage on the rack at the grocery, or maybe it's switching to your farmer's market all summer, or taking up growing food at home so you can learn for yourself what goes into food production. Either way, creating less sales for perfect produce is the only language that companies (like supermarkets) speak.

Knowledge is power. Now that you know, it's up to you to decide what you want to do about it.

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