Giving thanks for ugly fruit

Ugly fruit can be beautiful

It was the last outing of our harvest season, and 500 pounds of apples lay before us in 25 bags. A group of nine harvesters from the Baltimore Orchard Project combed through the fruit trees for the last of the yield at this impeccably-kept orchard so we could give the fruit to those in need.

The orchard had been planted for its charm more than for its food, and for years much of its fruit had gone to waste. So its owners graciously welcomed us to harvest it. We did salvage a lot of fruit, but there was one problem. As much as one-tenth of this harvest would never be distributed. Not because it wasn't edible, but because it wasn't pretty. It did not look like the more fabricated, selected and homogenous fruit that is allowed to reach supermarkets. It was rather, what we affectionately call, ugly fruit.

Ugly fruit is perfectly edible fruit that might have scabs or dark spots, or be small or otherwise marred or misshapen. Yet when sufficiently ugly, many people consider such fruit "rejects." So we don't give it away. Instead, the volunteers take it. But there is often too much for all the volunteers to use so some will go to waste.

Which is not just a pity. In a city where one in four families with children is living in poverty, it is simply wrong. Astonishingly, 31 percent to 40 percent of all harvested food gets wasted — including about 81 pounds of fruit per capita.

It's a sad irony that the food we waste most in this country — fruits and vegetables — is the kind we most need to add into our diets. Americans eat only about 3 ounces of fruit per day, the equivalent of half an apple. For some, the cost of fruit is a barrier. We also produce far less than we need: the USDA estimated that to enable everyone to eat according to dietary guidelines, we would need to double our national fruit acreage. We could meet more of our fruit needs without expanding our farm acreage simply by consuming ugly fruit.

About two-thirds of food waste happens in our homes and restaurants. A decent amount of the rest is driven by our pickiness, because if retailers think we won't buy it, they won't sell it.

Not all ugly fruits head to the landfill. We eat some in the form of prepared, processed and restaurant foods, and some are donated to food banks and soup kitchens willing to accept (and often process) them, all good uses. Other uses, like animal feed, industrial uses and composting are better than the landfill, though not the optimal use of our limited resources.

Many of us accept, even expect, ugly fruit at the farmers market or our own gardens. Scabs on a farmers market apple remind us of its connection to nature, and nature is one reason we shop there. By contrast, in a supermarket, where the connection to tree, vine or bush is conceptually severed, we prefer our fruit clean, unblemished and uniform. That's harder to get without a lot of chemical inputs. And it's a cycle, with retailers continually upping their aesthetic standards to out-do their competitors, and consumers, in turn, increasingly trained to expect external perfection.

But as in so many areas of the marketplace, consumers can change this.

We, the consumers, can turn around our thinking and begin to see imperfect fruit for what it often is: tasty, desirable, healthy, natural. It is the way nature, in its efforts to fight infections and infestations and create variety and resilience, works. Seen this way, whether sourced from the farmers market, garden or even supermarket, ugly is beautiful.

And, ugly, sold at discount, also creates a beautiful win-win-win for farmers, retailers and consumers. Some food stores create dedicated shelves for ugly fruits and vegetables (often alongside older or bruised produce) and draw in customers with promotions. Consumers, restaurants and institutional food providers, especially those planning to chop cook or bake with the produce, can let sellers know they want to (in the words of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council) purchase "lower on the beauty chain."

Accepting ugly foods of all sorts across our edible landscape would reduce mountains of waste, make produce more available and affordable, and quite possibly make us all healthier. In such a light, ugly food becomes truly beautiful.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is executive director of the Baltimore Orchard Project; her email is ninabeth@baltimoreorchard.org. Roni Neff is an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and program director at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future; her email is rneff1@jhu.edu.

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