The Uglier, the Better

Perfectly imperfect produce may be your best choice.

Ever had an ugly carrot? Like, a really ugly carrot, with fingers growing out the sides, straggly root strands, and a severe lack of symmetry? If you’ve answered yes, then you know where this is going. If you’ve answered no, then you might be missing out on something truly wonderful, as the expression “never judge a book by its cover” applies to produce, too. So how do you know when a produce item is just plain ugly or legitimately unsafe to eat? We’ve broken down some helpful tips to aid in your decision, but first, let’s explore the ongoing problem of food waste in America.

Food waste in America
Post-vaccination splurging is on the rise as folks safely venture out of their homes amid the pandemic. Spending (and often overspending) on food items is easily possible for those who are not food insecure with the accessibility of convenience foods, among other sources. A greater surplus and lower costs add to the problem, however that is not the only growing concern of food waste in America. Surplus aside, there is a cultural phenomenon of aesthetics that comes into play here. Culturally speaking, Americans seek out textbook perfect and Instagram worthy foods to a much farther extent than other cultures. These beautifully shaped and unblemished versions are (most of the time) not actually what real food looks like.

According to the USDA, 30-40% of all food produced in the U.S. goes to waste. Based on its 2010 baseline study, 31% of food was wasted at the retail and consumer levels, a loss equaling approximately 133 billion pounds and $162 billion. More recent findings by the EPA suggest that in 2018, food accounted for the fourth largest group of municipal solid waste tracked by the agency, averaging 63.1 million tons and approximately 21.6 percent of all total waste. Food was the largest group of landfill waste, coming in at 24 percent. In other words, almost one-quarter of all landfilled waste is food — that’s a lot to chew on!

So, what can we do to help alleviate this problem?
It all starts at the local level with education. By educating consumers and working in partnership with all facets of the supply chain (farmers, distributors, restaurants, retailers, and end consumers), we can begin to chip away at the food waste problem. First, we need to retrain our collective consciousness to understand that not every bump or bruise on a piece of produce is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it could mean that you’re looking at the juiciest pear you’ve ever tasted, scars and all. Understanding that not all produce looks picture perfect, and in fact, most organic produce is far from picture perfect, is a start. Fruits and vegetables vary in terms of colors, shapes, and sizes. They may have appendages growing from them, or other haphazardly shaped oddities. But take a moment to realize that this is nature’s creation, and as long as it passes the test, you can enjoy it freely.

Where do we go from here?
Curbing the problem starts at the consumer level, so before you set out to shop, consider the following to help keep food waste at bay.

  • Meal Plan – It seems simple enough but sometimes meal planning can be a stumbling block. Try to start small with planning only five days a week, then add on the last two once you’re in a grove. If it is convenient for you, consider going shopping more frequently but for less items. You may find that as your shopping list gets smaller, your food waste goes down and you end up saving money on your groceries long-term.
  • The eyeball/smell/squeeze test! – Not sure if that Monet-looking peach is good enough to eat? First, observe. Can your mind’s eye get past the way it looks? If yes, then proceed. Smell it to see if you get the scent of peach or something off. Now, try giving it a squeeze. Does the flesh seem to have a slight give to it but still hold its shape? If so, then you may have a winner! Give that ugly peach a try at home and let the flavor be the judge.
  • Slice, dice, simmer, bake and more – Need ideas for your imperfect produce? Simmer diced vegetables in a stew, purée them, bake them in a casserole, blend them into your favorite smoothie or juice, or pickle them for easy storage.
  • Grow your own – Another great way to curb food waste is to reuse and recycle it straight back into the environment. Composting scraps in your local community garden adds important nutrients back into the soil. If you don’t have a community garden, you can start your own, or create a windowsill garden at home. Save any seeds from fruits and vegetables, plant them and watch them grow!

Another fun and easy method of getting to zero food waste is by regenerating food scraps. Some popular foods that can easily be regenerated are green onions, carrots, leeks, garlic, celery, and lettuces. For more inspiration, check out our DIY Indoor Farming Ideas from our Fall 2020 magazine.

How is Brooklyn Fare helping to curb the food waste problem?
Here at Brooklyn Fare, we take whatever produce we don’t sell and repurpose it in our prepared foods at our commissary. This ensures that our deli is always stocked with fresh fruits, vegetables and meats at all times, and that no food goes to waste. We closely monitor expiration dates and try to use items off before they expire.

The three R’s of reduce, reuse, recycle still apply! “This has been our method for years. That’s how we reduce our waste, and this is what we do to try to combat this,” says Brandon Issa, regional manager of Brooklyn Fare’s three stores. In addition to reusing foods, Brooklyn Fare has also partnered with Too Good To Go, a mobile app connecting consumers to retailers with a food surplus. Right now, the company is only working with bakery items and prepared goods. With Too Good To Go, Brooklyn Fare has the opportunity to repurpose its same day and end of day baked goods and prepared foods, so consumers get only the freshest products.

The concept is simple. Brooklyn Fare will prepare $15 worth of unused baked goods or prepared foods in a Surprise Bag, then sell them at a discounted price of $4.99 through the Too Good To Go app. Once a Surprise Bag is purchased, the items will be available for in-store pick up with proof of purchase.

The partnership between Brooklyn Fare and Too Good To Go launched last September in the US and has taken off ever since. “New Yorkers are always raving about their Surprise Bags filled with fresh pastries, bread loaves, or savory prepared meals from Brooklyn Fare,” said Lucie Basch, cofounder, Too Good To Go. “The best part of our partnership is creating a community where we can all work together to reduce food waste and fight climate change, one delicious bite at a time!”

Understanding that not all produce looks picture perfect, and in fact, most organic produce is far from picture perfect, is a start. Fruits and vegetables vary in terms of colors, shapes, and sizes. They may have appendages growing from them, or other haphazardly shaped oddities. But take a moment to realize that this is nature’s creation, and as long as it passes the test, you can enjoy it freely.

How to tell what’s good or not?
Again, go back to the eyeball/smell/squeeze test. First, observe how the piece of produce looks in terms of its color. Is the color vibrant like it was freshly picked or is it dull and lackluster? Then look at the texture. Does the piece of produce appear smooth or is it rough in areas that it should not be? Finally, check out the exterior. Is it oddly shaped but otherwise looks good? This is probably an indication that it is safe to consume. Is the produce oozing, or have signs of mold or rot anywhere? Then it would be best to avoid.

After observing the item, give it the ol’ sniff test. Does it smell like it should, or is there an unpleasant odor? If it’s the latter of the two, best to try another.

To further define elements that go into judging the quality of fruits and vegetables, this Taylor and Francis report put out by UC Davis points to four key factors that determine fresh-cut fruits and vegetables quality: color and appearance, flavor (taste and aroma), texture, and nutritional value.

You don’t have to be a nutritionist or food scientist to figure out what foods are good or bad, you just need to do a little investigative work and use your five senses to decide. Remember, we may eat with our eyes, but our stomachs (and our wallets) will thank us if we keep in mind that food doesn’t have to look perfect to taste perfectly fine.

written by D. J. DiOrio
for Brooklyn Fare

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