According to the FAO, more than half of the edible fruit and vegetables grown in the United States are wasted every year. Consumers and retailers are responsible for much of this waste, but at least a quarter happens in the fields and factories at the production, post-harvest, and processing stages, before produce is even put up for sale. Why is so much healthy, fresh food getting tossed away at the very beginning of its life?
Much of the blame lies with the cosmetic standards applied to produce. These standards are designed to ensure fruits and veggies look appealing and are easy to package and display, but they mean that perfectly nutritious food is composted, thrown in landfills, or used as animal feed because of cosmetic defects (too big, too small, crooked, scarred, wrinkled, color too bright or too dark, etc.) Food Shift staff and volunteers recently visited a California fruit processing plant and saw how each individual cherry was evaluated based on size, shape, and color. Cherries that didn’t fit in a standard stencil shape or that had light spots were discarded, never to see the supermarket.
So what can we do to make sure lumpy, bumpy produce gets its chance to shine? One way is to shop at farmers markets and other direct sale venues, skipping the cosmetic processing standards entirely.
But another strategy–and one that might even have a bigger impact–is simply to speak up at the supermarket! Supermarkets think customers don’t want imperfect produce, but independent studies show they do. Activist, author, and Food Shift advisory board member Tristram Stuart found in his book Waste that most consumers don’t mind buying unusual-looking fruits and veggies, as long as they taste good. When the French supermarket chain Intermarche launched a high-profile campaign to sell Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables at a 30% discount, they brought in new customers and increased store traffic in addition to diverting waste. If you want to see more nutritious fruits and veggies make it to our plates rather than the waste bins, speak up!