An Imperfect Food System: Reducing Waste While You Shop

This is part 4 of a 4-part series on the connection between food waste and food insecurity.

Read part 1: Grocery Privilege • Part 2: How Food Waste Perpetuates Food Insecurity • Part 3: It All Comes Back to Climate Change.
Photo by Ethan Feng

Helping to normalize imperfect food in our wider culture can help remove some of the shame commonly felt among recipients of food pantries. Rescued or recently-expired food is not trash, and we’ve got to continue emphasizing this. 

If we accept and consume food that’s less than perfect, we should not feel “less than”. Somewhere along the way we’ve come to the conclusion that buying only spotless and uniform products validates our own worth; that buying imperfect food means we are stooping to lower standards.

Where in our lives does perfection serve us? Why do we so often feel it’s a measurement of our value? If the look of our food was a commentary on our own status, wouldn’t we choose the food with the most character, integrity, and—honestly!—natural beauty?

Below are a few of the basic rules I follow when grocery shopping. Over time and with enough of us chipping in, we’ll communicate to our stores that we understand the reality and benefits of imperfection: we don’t support the behind-the-scenes food waste that makes perfect possible. 

Buy the ugly food 

A few wilted leaves? Bruising or dings? Oddly small? Oddly shaped? Broken egg? One moldy berry? Whenever your natural reaction toward a piece of grocery store produce is “next, please,” most likely this is exactly how every other customer will greet it. That food will be left behind, eventually swept to the bowels of the store by an employee. 

When you catch yourself passing something over because of appearance, stop yourself: what would it cost you to simply remove those three wilted leaves, or that single moldy berry? If you rescue these foods, you are directly preventing the food waste that would occur if they stayed on their shelf. 

Two important notes!:

1) if one day you choose the large sweet potatoes over the neglected sweet potato nubbins, please don’t beat yourself up. Don’t be bullied by guilt; just do your best and shop intentionally.

2) sometimes we mistake blemished produce as rotting produce. These two very different states are sometimes hard to distinguish, and in our busy lives they’ve become interchangeable (bruised/ripe/different = bad/rotten/spoiled). What may look like a pear that’s “gone bad” for example, might well be a pear at the peak of its ripeness. When handled and housed among impractically large and heavy piles of fruit at the grocery store (an appearance of abundance is more enticing to customers), a perfectly ripe pear will unfailingly acquire some dings and bruises.

As an inverse example, those firm, round, uncompromising tomatoes you see at the market are bred for durability during transportation, storage, and handling, and are most likely underripe when you buy them. Unlike easy-squished and wonky-looking heirloom tomatoes, they are not gems of taste and texture, but of longevity.

Buy the damaged packaging 

Mildly dented cans, dented cartons, broken lids, ripped boxes, dirty wrapping—none of these will impact your food or your experience of it as long as the internal bag or seal is intact. If not bought, these are the products that will be left behind and likely thrown away. However, if the safety seal or internal bag is broken, or if your can is sharply dented so that the metal forms a point or crease, leave these products on the shelf.

Buy nearly-“expired” food

Read my post about expiration dates for details.

In short, if you have no memory of when you purchased your food, feel free to use these dates as a guideline; but give them no more weight than that. With the exception of baby formula, date labels are not regulated, they are not an indicator of food safety, and they cause an unacceptable amount of food waste. 

When you shop, consciously select the food that is nearing the expiration date. If left on the shelf, that food will likely end up in the trash, not because it’s spoiled, but because the arbitrary nature of date labels are commonly misunderstood by the average customer. Since you are not the average customer and know not to give them clout, you can rescue the items that others overlook.    

Note: when I worked in food rescue, we referenced a company guide that articulated how far beyond the expiration date our products could be donated. Though no law requires stores to remove products by their expiration date, they do so at the behest of the customer. As food rescue organizations and their recipients can attest, this food is capable of having a life after the date has passed. Use your senses to determine whether food is fresh: food is often fresh for days, weeks, even months (dry goods, non-perishables) after that date has come and gone, depending on the product and how it’s stored. Stay tuned for a date label guide.

Other tweaks

In addition to implementing the above tactics as you shop, you can reduce your consumer footprint by opting out of the supermarket system: shop at local farmers’ markets, sign up for a farm share, support local businesses, or subscribe to rescued grocery delivery. These approaches are not accessible to everyone, but if you are lucky enough to be able to apply them, you can benefit health-wise as well.

Within the supermarket system, you can also cut down your impact by supporting sustainable brands, limiting the plastic packaging that comes with your food, and checking that the produce you buy is sourced locally.

Final thoughts

Having the economic means to choose to eat fresh fruits and vegetables is a gift; being confident that you can easily alleviate any pang of hunger is a gift. The ability to afford all the food we want—and even more food than we need—is a responsibility that we are often not taught to wisely navigate. 

As we progress as a society, there are a lot of things we need to unlearn. We are steadily realizing that our revulsion toward imperfect food is irrational and antiquated, passed on and adopted without question. It is so gratifying to consciously shift value from typically picturesque products to the charismatic runts of the grocery pile, because you align your shopping with experiential action rather than material satisfaction. If you do this, you are helping to re-establish balance and moderation in a system grounded in excess and depletion. You are advocating for our planet and its inhabitants and aligning your priorities to match the realities of the world.

Though it might sound like I’m proposing that you lower your expectations in favor of damaged or less plentiful selections, I’m actually asking you to raise them. Rather than denounce the benefits of our food system, I’m asking you to embrace them.

Limited by access, many people don’t have the good fortune of choosing to live fully by their values or enjoy the liberation that those choices bring. If you do, you have the ability to spend your money in a way that can evoke pride, fulfillment, and meaning, and in a world that revolves around buying, that’s no small privilege.

Related Posts:

Should We Follow Expiration Dates?

Your Guide to Freezing (and Thawing) Food

How to Shop Responsibly (and Buy Less Stuff)

Published by Yenny

I want to share with you what I’ve learned from my work as a food rescuer and from my personal waste-reduction journey, while bringing you perspectives from my network of wise industry professionals. Let’s push full-steam ahead toward building the tools and systems we need to conserve, preserve, and value our resources.

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