This is a re-post of a piece I wrote when I worked for Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a food rescue nonprofit that serves the greater Boston area. Lovin’ Spoonfuls recovers food from grocery stores and farms that don’t meet shelf-standards, distributing it to local hunger relief agencies.
The majority of my waking experience at this point in my life is consumed by interactions with food. I spend hours a day in the kitchen cooking and eating, meal prepping and playing tupperware Tetris in my fridge corner—practice for the daytime dance of box truck organization. I handle food all day for work as a Food Rescue Coordinator at Lovin’ Spoonfuls, and in my personal life I consider it my environmental responsibility to accept, consume, and enjoy any food that is offered to me if its alternative fate is the trash bin. I have always been heavily food-motivated and relentlessly hungry, but I have never been so conscious as I am now of my choices.
I have recently regarded my approach to eating to be quite as alien as the habits of my roommates and friends, who experience the world of food with drastic contrast: some eat only one meal a day, some eat the same things every day, some don’t snack, some practice intermittent fasting, and all prioritize and avoid certain foods over others. Though food is a universal need and pleasure, our relationships with it are growing more complex and more singular.
A cornerstone of physical, emotional, and cultural fulfillment, food easily becomes a source of struggle when it is too sparse or too plentiful, too cheap or too expensive, too yellow or too green. Efforts to find balance between our reliance upon food and our consequent vulnerability to it can be exhausting amid distractions of healthwashed products, hectic schedules, and the disparate parallel food journeys of those closest to us.
Our eating behaviors are motivated by countless factors—natural preference, social influence, culture, body image, emotional wellbeing, hormones, dietary restrictions, ethics, practicality, budget, accessibility, fondness for cooking, time limitations, simple habit, etc. It is incredibly difficult to discern with confidence what a healthy relationship with food looks like in the context of our unique bodies.
In this globalized and fast-paced world, many additional considerations interfere with our ability to follow our nutritional instincts: stress, dietary trends, ever-changing scientific conclusions on nutrition, the instant gratification of the supermarket, choice overwhelm, the abundance of processed junk masquerading as food, omnipresent advertising, and idealistic beauty standards.
On top of this, we are exposed to a version of fruits and vegetables that are heavily engineered by the food industry to achieve similarly idealistic beauty standards, skewing our understanding of produce norms. This produce is often selected from pools of less shiny food grown in industrial and monocultured fields that emphasize uniformity, durability, and yield. The impacts of such farming operations lead to soil erosion, chemical pollution, and staggering water use, occupying tremendous swaths of land while reducing genetic diversity—but we’re not talking about that….
Small farm veggies and fruits in comparison to these herbaceous supermodels can seem feeble, ugly, even gross to some. At a food access nonprofit I worked for a few years ago, a group of children visited our urban farm for a tour and taste test—many of whom had never experienced local organic vegetables. They sampled our freshly-harvested cucumbers and tomatoes, comparing them to Market Basket cucumbers and tomatoes; we waited for their reaction.
“Eureka, I DO love vegetables!”… was never exclaimed. Instead, our farm veggies were too “cucumbery” and too “tomatoey” for their liking. This was at first seriously disheartening: the pervasive blandness of watered-down crops were robbing children of the pleasure of healthy food, while reinforcing the acceptance of mediocre eating standards and the unsustainable practices behind much of that food. Quality (by my definition of nutritiously rich, ethically produced, and vibrantly tasty) had clearly been flipped on its head, replaced by the aesthetically pleasing products of industry giants.
When a Flavorful Cucumber Isn’t a Better Cucumber
Really, the kids’ reaction made complete sense. If supermarkets—conveniently placed and moderately priced—are all that are available to you as a child, your palette will form around these concepts of food: a flavorful cucumber, then, is not necessarily a better cucumber. This for me was a clear demonstration of how strikingly each person’s relationship to food can differ, based on upbringing and exposure.
Disparities in value placement and food preference are highlighted everyday on the road at Lovin’ Spoonfuls. The most expensive and sought-after Whole Foods products are often the most commonly rejected when offered to beneficiaries. Superfood blends, kombucha, and plant-based burger patties are strange and inaccessible to those unfamiliar with not only these products, but the branding and lifestyle associated with them.
Subjective opinion is a part of our job that is both complex and fascinating. When it comes to food safety, we work with our partners to remove any question marks we can, based on ServSafe policy. However, there is still immense space for personal interpretation around “what is food” and “what is compost.” Carts of apples that have been left out of the cooler overnight, boxes of cut broccoli that smell like broccoli, pallets of carrots that have met their expiration date, are too often fated for the trash instead of a food pantry: faulty preconceptions around food storage, food decomposition, and date labels lead store employees to assume these products are no longer valuable, or safe for consumption.
It is essential that we as consumers proactively learn and educate each other on proper practices around food safety and storage, as well as on the consequences of wasted food. To reduce food waste, this knowledge needs to be widely spread and applied, at the grocery store, at work, and in our homes.
Love That Ugly Food
My mom subscribes to Imperfect Foods (a Bay Area-based rescued food delivery service), and when she forgets to pre-select her weekly bounty and is sent a package with a variety of what she considers “leftovers,” she is irritated by it. This makes me laugh, because I certainly get her annoyance—as consumers, we are conditioned to feel ripped off if we receive substandard products.
But at the same time, I gripe, “Mom! Isn’t the whole point of subscribing to Imperfect Foods to reduce food waste by embracing the weird veggies of the world?” I want her to reframe her mindset to be joyous of the lopsided potatoes and celebrate their character. I want her to feel empowered to be the recipient of these veggie rejects, as she is doing something great for the planet. I want her to question where the twisted carrots are if all she receives is shelf-standard produce, and to feel relieved when she finally sees them in her delivery.
Perfect food standards are by definition unsustainable. 40% of food will continue to go unharvested at farms, rejected at grocery stores, and tossed from our fridges because of this demand for unnatural perfection.
When I buy food from a grocery store, I intentionally grab the bruised pears, dented can of beans, or milk nearing its sell-by date. I would rather spend my money on “imperfect” products if their trajectory may be the trash (aren’t these products cuter anyway?). If we as a society start to curb our negative associations with dinged and wonky produce, and renew our appreciation for food of all shapes and sizes, we can feel pride in the way we shop and investment in the ingredients we cook with.
Lovin’ Spoonfuls’ beneficiaries are pioneers in this movement: for by accepting and distributing food that is not perfect, and educating their constituents that broccoli just plain smells weird when it’s cut, they are infusing food with value that over the years has been diluted. Re-empowering food, cooking, and eating is of utmost importance not just for the environment, but in our experience of life as well; when we nurture and nourish around a shared table, there is incredible potential for the strength of community and vibrancy of culture.