An Imperfect Waste: Why Does America Lead The World In Food Waste?

Banana too bent? Tomato with not quite rosy skin? Sweet corn that’s not a desirable yellow hue? We simply throw them away. “The United States enjoys the most productive and abundant food supply on Earth, but too much of this food goes to waste,” stated then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in 2015. “An average family of four leaves more than two million calories, worth nearly $1500, uneaten each year.” Though there are a many dynamics at play, one major contributor to America leading the world in food waste is a national obsession with the appearance of our produce.

Before we point the finger at ourselves, it’s important to realize that this is a problem in all food production systems. In fact, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one third of all food grown is lost or wasted, an amount valued at nearly three trillion dollars. That’s a lot of dodgy carrots. But where do we begin to find a solution?

We derive much of our food culture from food professionals, and when we watch shows on channels such as the Food Network, it would be rare to find a chef waxing poetic about the freshness of his produce, only to display something less than perfect. Restaurant customers similarly expect perfection; while bok choy that has suffered a flea beetle attack might taste delicious, its appearance leaves diners wondering why they’ve paid for something diseased-looking. But fruits and vegetables have a tendency to bruise, brown, wilt, ding and discolor—it’s  only natural.

United States Leading Food Waste
United States Leading Food Waste

Chef Dan Barber, one of the more visible imperfect food evangelists, reinvented his Manhattan restaurant for a three-week period as wastED (The ED stands for “education”), where he served “pock-marked potatoes,” “carrot top marmalade,” burgers made from beetroot pulp and fries repurposed from corn for cattle. To create 10,000 wastED dishes, he used 600 pounds of ugly vegetables, 150 pounds of kale ribs, 30 gallons of beef tallow, 475 pounds of skate fish cartilage, 350 pounds of vegetable pulp and 900 pounds of waste-fed pigs. As Barber explained to The Guardian, “A project like the one I am trying to do at wastED couldn’t have existed 100 years ago. . . Because there was no waste from agriculture, everything was utilized.”

But not everyone has the ability to tap into food systems the same way chefs who visit their farmers do, and a San Francisco company has stepped in to fill the gap. Imperfect Produce will home deliver a box of “ugly” produce at 30-50 percent less than market price. This system not only gives consumers environmentally responsible options for purchase, it also creates new revenue streams for farmers who would otherwise simply dispose of non-conforming fruits and vegetables. Imperfect Produce currently operates in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland.

While our food systems deliver a diversity and abundance rarely seen elsewhere in the world, they also deliver inevitable waste through mistakes, disease, poor management of harvesting or incorrect storage. As anyone who’s tried to grow backyard fruits and veggies knows, or for those of us who harvest our own medicine, there are a number of variables that must align in order to produce an outstanding crop. But farmers are incentivized to only bring their most perfect bounty to consumer markets, and for that our spending habits are to blame. The next time you’re buying produce, don’t hesitate to pick up a bruised apple or less-than-rosy tomato—it won’t kill you to embrace life’s imperfections.

United States Leading Food Waste
United States Leading Food Waste

Read More From Our November DOPE “Food Issue”…..

  1. Chef Miguel Trinidad: Food as a Living Art
  2. Tokyo’s Secret Café Experiences: Floating through Coffee, Pineapples and Reality
  3. Purple Monkey by Green and Gold Supply Co.


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