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It’s time to stop wasting so much food

Tuesday, August 11, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Anne Piacentino
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Source: National Post

When you were a child, chances are your mother told you to clean your plate, because “there are hungry children in Africa.”

The message is twofold: firstly, you ought to feel ashamed to take for granted something to which other children have little to no access; secondly, waste not, want not. But as it turns out, most of us in North America didn’t take those messages to heart. In Canada and the United States, food waste — personal, commercial and industrial — is at an all-time high $31-billion in food is wasted per year in Canada, and more than $160-billion in the U.S. And those figures are on the rise.

The numbers should be shocking, but they don’t even seem that surprising, given a general cultural preoccupation with perfection and abundance, but after decades of throwing out perfectly good food in all kinds of contexts, the issue has hit the public radar as of late, with efforts to stem the tide of deformed produce and expired dry goods to landfill gaining traction.

France put the issue on the social media radar last year, when supermarket chain France Intermarche launched a much-celebrated campaign aimed at enticing customers toward “weird fruits and vegetables” by selling them at 30% off the regular price. Earlier this year, Canada followed suit, with Loblaw’s offering misshapen produce at a discount in its Real Canadian Superstore and No Frills stores, under the label “naturally imperfect.”

But you know a cause has really hit the zeitgeist when it gets the John Oliver “deep dive” treatment, which food waste did in 16-minute segment on a recent episode of the comedian’s HBO show, Last Week Tonight. The piece was wide-ranging, covering everything from expiry dates that have little to do with actual food expiry to portion sizes and food security, but the face of the issue really belongs to the lumpy potatoes and three-legged carrots, adorably sympathetic misfits that are generally kept off store shelves all together.

Oliver called the issue of ugly-food rejection “produce body-shaming,” which is clever: In reality we ought to be as skeptical of perfectly symmetrical fruits and vegetables as we are of perfectly symmetrical humans since, except in certain anomalistic cases, perfection is unusual. However, to a consumer public accustomed to things looking a certain way, that’s a hard sell — but as the initiatives above evidence, the battle of ugly produce has reached the front lines in the fight against food waste.

It’s not the worst offender — in Canada food thrown away by farmers before it hits the distribution makes up 10% of our food waste — but it is a good symbol, discrimination being so clearly at play.

Fruit and vegetables are graded on a scale that is often purely aesthetic, with more symmetrical items harvested and shipped away for sale while imperfect ones are ditched completely. The only difference between the one piece of produce and the other is shape; they are identical in taste and nutritional value. But to the symmetry-seeking consumer, any deviance from the mental image we have of, say, an unwaveringly spherical cantaloupe or a pin-straight carrot is an indicator of poor quality.

It makes sense: There’s no industry on earth whose main marketing line wavers far from the idea that things can only BE perfect when they LOOK perfect. We don’t just judge books by their covers; we also judge apples by their peels. So farmers don’t even bother with the weird stuff.

The Intermarche made a virtue of that weirdness — going cute with its campaign, and giving ugly fruits and vegetables their own distinct personalities: the “ridiculous potato,” for instance, was knobby and oblong, while the “ugly carrot” looked more like a peace sign than a conventional root vegetable. But, as the ads pointed out, that carrot would be going “in a soup.” So: “who cares?” A poster bearing an image of a disfigured lemon, meanwhile, put an even finer point on the initiative: “The failed lemon,” it read. “From the creator of the lemon.”

The numbers should be shocking, but they don’t even seem that surprising
In the U.S., Doug Rauch — the ex-president of grocery store Trader Joe’s — took it a step further last year, opening a nonprofit grocery store in the low-income Boston neighbourhood of Dorchester whose shelves were stocked entirely with unsellable surplus from food wholesalers — here ugly fruit and veg joins bread past its sell-by date, and surplus fish that would not otherwise make it to market. It’s perfectly good food at a fraction of a cost of the good-looking stuff, but this time aimed squarely for sale at a food-insecure population.

This is, in a way, the perfect model, particularly as the gap between those who can afford fresh food and those who can’t continues to widen: in Canada last year, around 12% of households reported worrying about food costs, resorting to purchasing cheap, nutritionally inferior foods in order to feed their families. The amount we waste is not just paradoxical; it’s shameful.

There are a number of individual and bureaucratic hurdles that need to be overcome before food waste even approaches being a solvable issue; one Dorchester grocery store and a bunch of wonky peppers at no frills aren’t quite going to cut it. Those lumpy peaches can’t generally get directly into the hands of those who’d eat them, because it costs farmers less money to simply throw them away; there aren’t systems in place tailored for the reclamation of odd fruits.

British ‘poo bus’ goes into service: It runs on human sewage, food waste and smells like a bus
Despite structural limitations, this is a problem we can at least begin to address at home. Looking at the numbers, the biggest issue is not agricultural practices or grocery stores, but individual waste. Most of the food thrown away in Canada — a whopping 47 per cent of it — is discarded in the home. We buy and prepare way more food than we eat. Everyone does it, but we can stop, plan better and follow through. It’s time we stopped viewing wastefulness as a personal vice or individual sin and started seeing it as a societal ill, part of the same set of symptoms that requires us to have the fastest fashion and the newest technology.

Buy less food. And if you can, buy the ugly stuff. As they might say in France: don’t judge a hideous orange by its peel; it still makes beautiful juice.

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