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Embrace Imperfect Produce

The storm that tore across Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties last month uprooted trees and damaged homes. But it also beat up a lot of locally grown produce, leaving it unable to meet our “perfect produce” standards.

Local farmers watched as their hard work, up-front costs and livelihood hung from the trees, distressed by forces they could not stop. Fruit growers seemed to carry the heaviest burden—several reported that wind and hail left more than 95 percent of their crop unmarketable to grocery stores and direct markets—the two main outlets for premium products.

Adele Wunsch, a fruit grower on Old Mission Peninsula, explained that the expectation is a premium product must be nearly perfect, because it doesn’t take much for produce to be considered unattractive to those buyers.

“Any cosmetic damages, decay, under/ over maturity or variation in size,” makes the product unmarketable to grocers, said Wunsch.

It sounds like a fairly extreme standard — fruits and vegetables must fit a perfect mold in order to make it to the produce aisle. But grocery stores don’t deserve all the blame. Stores will cater to what the public demands, and let’s face it: Average consumers are looking for perfection.

So the imperfect produce, often called seconds or sort-outs by farmers, is usually either sold at a discount, left on the trees, or tilled into the field, even though the farmers have already put so much time, energy and resources into the crop. According to “NPR News,” anywhere from 5 to 30 percent of a farmer’s harvest ends up as waste simply due to unsightliness.

What is the solution to all of this waste in a world with plenty of mouths to feed? Kevin VerSnyder, whose Lake Leelanau orchard will likely see a 96 percent loss in marketable apples this year due to the storm, said that while a lot of the damage resulted in cracked and rotting fruit, a good amount only suffered minor surface or subsurface blemishes.

“The fruit can still be eaten; it’s just rather unsightly,” he said.

Since no one and nothing are perfect, it begs the question: Why do we expect our produce to be? In fact a perfect, uniform exterior does not necessarily equal supreme quality or taste. It’s what’s inside that really counts.

Phelps_VerSnyder Orchards3Some retailers already understand this. For example, two years ago the third-largest retailer in France, Intermarche, launched a campaign to sell ‘ugly’ produce, calling it “Inglorious fruits & vegetables.” The store bought produce that didn’t meet the perfection standard; in fact it was, often misshapen or blemished. To help customers realize that the produce was beautiful on the inside, Intermarche gave away “Inglorious fruit & vegetable” soups and juices. It worked, and in just the first two days the average sales of imperfect produce per store weighed in at 1.2 tons.

That same year another retailer, Waitrose, in the U.K., purchased ‘weather blemished’ apples from a longtime supplier whose crop had endured unseasonal hail, leaving 70 percent of it superficially damaged. The retailer sold the apples in mixed variety bags with a special “weather blemished” label; to be eaten, made into applesauce, or baked into pies.

Now a few new U.S. companies are hoping to turn Americans on to less-than-perfect produce, too. Startups like Imperfect and Hungry Harvest are selling boxes of lightly damaged regional produce at a discount and shipping them directly to your door. Hungry Harvest adds another highly attractive element to the mix; for every box sold, it donates a second box to needy families.

State governments are paying attention, too. California and six others incentivize farmers to donate produce to food banks by offering them tax credits.

Solutions like these can provide a second chance for our farmers when something unexpected, including bad weather, affects their produce’s appearance. As a community we don’t want to dwell on the damages caused by this storm, but it is important to be aware of all those it affected, and what can be done to help.

“In this business we have to remain optimistic,” reflected Wunsch, “while also thinking critically about strategies to handle the issues we can control.”

That terrible storm opened my eyes to the unfortunately common perception that imperfect produce isn’t good enough. That’s simply not true, and there are ways to combat this: new incentives to develop and businesses to grow, all in the service of sharing recipes, becoming comfortable with cooking, and feeding the hungry.

But it all starts with us, as consumers. It’s high time we band together and strive to accept, support and enjoy all of life’s — and produce’s — inevitable imperfections.

*This article was originally published in the Northern Express Oct. 5-11th 2015

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  in Find Local Food, Get Involved, Learn More, Tricia Phelps