By Yenny Martin, Food Rescue Coordinator
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 miniscule fridge corner. I handle food all day for work as a Food Rescue Coordinator at Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a large-scale version of my fridge tupperware puzzle, 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 is the trash bin. Next to my somewhat extreme enthusiasm for food, many of my friends are on the polar end of the scale, eating one meal a day or absent of the need to snack.
Our relationships with food are becoming less universal and more complex, shaped by exposure, accessibility, work life, community, culture, education, simple habit, time limitations, dietary trends, ever-changing scientific studies on nutrition, an abundance of choice, and so many more factors. It is incredibly difficult to discern confidently what a healthy relationship with food looks like in the context of our unique bodies.
On top of this, we are exposed to a version of fruits and vegetables that is heavily engineered by the food industry for aesthetic perfection, which has shaped our understanding of produce. Farming practices that emphasize uniformity, durability, and high yield, however, compromise other factors, such as taste. At the nonprofit I worked for last year, a group of children visited our urban farm for a tour and taste test—many of whom had never experienced local organic vegetables. We compared our freshly-harvested cucumbers and tomatoes to grocery store cucumbers and tomatoes.
“Eureka, I DO love vegetables!”… was never exclaimed. Instead, our farm veggies were too “cucumbery” and too “tomatoey” for their liking. On reflection, their reaction made much more sense: our palettes become accustomed to tastes we are familiar with, and if supermarket veggies are all that are available, a flavorful cucumber is not necessarily a better cucumber.
Differences in preference and quality standards are highlighted every day on the road at Lovin’ Spoonfuls. This is a part of our job that is both complex and fascinating, and we work to remove any question marks we can around food safety, based on ServeSafe policy. However, there is still immense space for subjective interpretation around what is food, and what is compost.
My mom subscribes to Imperfect Produce (a Bay Area-based CSA of rescued produce), and when she forgets to pre-order 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 say, “Mom! Isn’t the whole point of subscribing to Imperfect Produce 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.
Flawless 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, 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 growth of community and vibrancy of culture.