Do looks matter, when it comes to grocery store produce?
If I’m being honest, I know that it does. Why would I buy an ugly apple, if I could have a picture-perfect one for the same price?
On a silly note, it’s easy to see why I’d want an unblemished fruit or vegetable: because I like when things look pretty. What if I (gasp!) can’t Instagram my dinner prep, because my carrots look so visually unappealing? (Don’t lie to me, Instagram users; I know I’m not alone here!)
But my worries go deeper than just a vain preference for pretty produce. When I see a strange-looking piece of fruit or a bizarrely-shaped veggie, I’m inclined to think there’s something… you know, wrong with it. What if the ugly vegetable is ugly for a reason? Maybe it’s mealy, or had a worm in it, or is dented because it was dropped. Or maybe it’s from a farm that doesn’t care about its produce.
Never mind if that’s actually true (which often, it’s not). No thanks, I’ll take the good-looking eggplant instead.
That kind of thinking may seem harmless, but it’s actually doing a lot of damage. In America alone, our hatred of ugly produce (and of expiration dates) means that farmers, grocery stores, and consumers throw away between 20 and 40% of all edible food each year. Yes, we prefer pretty produce so passionately that we’re wasting about 1/3 of the total supply of good food. That’s appalling—and with nearly 50 million Americans living in food-insecure households (including 21% of all children nationwide) we’ve got to get over this obsession with food beauty.
Some countries around the world are fighting back. The European Union announced that last year was the Year Against Food Waste, and French retailer Intermarché took that to heart. Intermarché‘s cheeky 2014 ugly produce campaign, called Inglorious, made it its goal to raise awareness about the value in unattractive fruits and veggies. “Ugly” produce was sold in store at a 30% discount. And the measure paid off: Intermarché saw a 24% growth in foot traffic thanks to the campaign.
Overall, Europe is leading the way in terms of loving the ugly produce—British stores Tesco, Sainbury, and Waitrose, and Austrian store Wunderlinge, among others, have followed Intermarché‘s lead. Even Canadian store Loblaws joined the fun in early 2015.
But so far, no U.S. grocery store has agreed to sell ugly produce for a discount in their stores—and that means we’re falling behind.
To recognize my own role in this mess, I’ve penned this open apology letter to ugly produce. It’s up to me to apologize for my vanity, beg for forgiveness, and illustrate what I will do differently now.
Dear Ugly Produce,
Hey, there. It’s me, the person who made fun of you last summer at the farmers’ market.
That was my mistake, ugly produce. (May I call you that?) I’m trying hard to make a difference in the world, but I didn’t think that choosing an ugly vegetable actually… you know… mattered. But I’ve learned now that it does.
I’m sorry. Forgive me; I’m weak. I pretend I’m picking the tastiest tomato, but we both know better than that: I’m picking the most beautiful tomato, the one I can share on Instagram with the words “I love summer” and like, three emojis of hearts.
Ugly produce, that’s not fair to you. I know you’re every bit as delicious as your handsomer brothers. And some of you are sometimes even tastier than many “showroom” veggies and fruits. I was taught as a kid that appearance didn’t matter—so why have I been judging you for your looks?
I know you’re gaining in popularity worldwide, and I’ll admit I’m ashamed I haven’t declared my love for you sooner.
But here’s what I can promise, from here on out:
1. At the grocery store, I’m going to find you
Yes, ugly produce. I will look for you, every time I go to the grocery store.
Since no major grocery store in the US has committed to selling you in general, I’ll have to get creative; I’ll dig for you in the bins, and once I find you, I’ll take you home with me. If others won’t give you the time of day, I will—and in that small way, I’ll do my part to make sure you’re loved and eaten, not discarded.
2. At my farmers’ market, I will ask for you
Whenever I take a stroll around my weekend farmers’ market, I’ll take a look around for you, and if I can’t find you, I’ll ask the booth workers about you.
And as for my CSA, I’ll ask them why they’ve only sent me the “classically beautiful” veggies and fruits. People come in all different shapes and sizes, so why not fruits and veggies?
3. I will share my love for you on social media
Yes, yes, I will share my true commitment for you on my social media channels—isn’t that what love looks like, in the 21st century?
One of the best ways I have to spread awareness about your true tasty value is to show my friends how I use unique produce like you. People should know that produce doesn’t have to look perfect to taste perfect. So I’ll make a commitment: I’ll share my dedication to you in the days and weeks to come.
Forget about Pinterest-perfect photos of gorgeous, tasteless tomatoes. I’m looking for YOU, my ugly produce friends, and when I find you, I will buy you, I will photograph you, and I will make you dinner.
Well, I mean, I will make you INTO dinner.
Ugly produce, my friend, my love… you rock.
Kelsey Ryan is the editor of Groundswell’s magazine. She’s a linguist, fledgling Tolkien scholar, knitter, Oxford comma proponent, and firm believer in the use of stories for social good. Explore her website, or connect on Twitter: @kryanlion.