Perfectly imperfect: Coming to a Grocery Store Near You?

hugging carrots


hugging carrots

Food was the gateway to a more mindful and sustainable approach in my life, and it happened very much by chance. Shortly after my move to San Francisco in the early 90s, I found myself having adverse physical reactions to a wide range of fruits I had always eaten. When a roommate suggested I try their organic counterparts from the corner market five blocks from our flat, I was set on a new path. Around that time, too, I was introduced to Whole Foods. The retail chain didn’t have a location in San Francisco just yet, and someone brought the then car-free me to their understated outpost in Mill Valley, CA, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. “Beautiful food for beautiful people,” was how the store and its customers were described to me.

And my, oh my, the produce was beautiful. Similarly-sized and arranged in impeccable formations, it seemed sacrilege to interrupt the peppers and heads of lettuces – many varieties which I’d not seen before –  in order to selections to my basket. But more than beautiful, the produce was kinda sorta strangely perfect. Perfect produce? How on earth was that possible?

One simple word: marketing.

As crazy as it sounds, it comes down to aesthetics and how to appeal to what customers supposedly want as prescribed by the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service Fruit and Vegetable Programs Fresh Products Branch. Yes. That’s a thing.

Without trying to rewrite what is described so brilliantly by Rochelle Billow in Are the Beauty Standards for Fruits & Vegetables Unfair?, this sums it up: “…the USDA grading system is based on sizing and conditions of ripeness. In other words, the factors supermarkets consider when purchasing produce are appearance, longevity, and packability—taste and nutrition don’t even make the list.”

Astounding, right? Even more astounding is this:

She continues, “All fruits and vegetables are held to incredibly high aesthetic standards when it comes to stocking supermarket shelves. It doesn’t matter if they’re organic or conventional, nutritious or vitamin-deficient, flavorful or bland—if they don’t meet the criteria established by the government and by the supermarkets themselves, they won’t—can’t—be sold to the majority of American consumers. And if they can’t be sold, they won’t be eaten.”

So wait, what happens to them? A lot of food ends up wasted or composted. And what a toll that takes on farmers! But more on that in a moment.

Intrigued by the whole notion of USDA’s standards, I wandered over to their website. It’s a trip. You can search by vegetable or fruit and read things like this:

“At least 75 percent of the nectarines in any lot shall show some blushed or red color including therein at least 50 percent of the nectarines with not less than one-third of the fruit surface showing red color characteristic of the variety.

“That discoloration occurring as yellow to brown staining of the skin shall not be considered russeting and shall be considered as causing serious damage only when seriously detracting from the appearance of the nectarine, and that speckling characteristic of certain varieties shall not be considered as russeting or discoloration.”


The section on carrots hasn’t been updated since 1960 and is a type-written document with really poor photographic reproductions. Strangely, it reminds me of my senior thesis complete with illustrations photocopied from books that I glued in. Under “Shape” for carrots:

“The U.S. No. 1 grade requires that the carrot roots be “fairly well formed” which is defined to mean that the carrots are not so crooked or otherwise misshapen…”


Forked carrots
“Forked carrots, such as those illustrated in figure 3 are U.S. No. 1. These carrots can be separated approximately as designated by the lines drawn and are considered ‘fairly well formed’ because there is practically no loss in the ordinary preparation for processing.” 

So I guess that means the delicious and organic fantastically imperfect nectarines and carrot I procured from the farmers market are not of a certain quality or prescribed beauty? I think not.

ugly nectarines, ugly fruit  ugly carrot, ugly vegetables

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You can’t judge a book by its cover. Go ahead. Choose your favorite proverb. These are lessons we were taught while growing up. These are lessons for life. They are also lessons that, due to forces we may not have been aware of, we have to learn again.

Perfection is a prescribed ideal. As I learned during my years studying art history, “The ancient Greeks viewed perfection as a requisite for beauty and high art.” The media and advertising perpetuate these ideals, though there are tangible signs they are starting to change. Earlier this year, the New York Times’ T Magazine ran an article about Ashley Brokaw, “the fashion industry’s leading casting director, she is largely responsible for the latest trend of unusual, unconventional beauties.” Trends in one sector seems to have a way of trickling into other streams of life, so when it comes to what we buy to feed ourselves and our families, I keep hoping the unusual, imperfect, and unconventionals become more of the norm.

From the local co-op to the farmer’s market I frequent, signs have literally been pointing the way. From cosmetically challenged and teenage veggies (do you know a perfect teenager?), we’re presented with imperfection as perfectly acceptable options.

ugly veggies  ugly mushrooms

ugly fruit  IMG_2562

When you consider the fact that a quarter of all produce is destined for compost heaps or landfill because they are less than perfect, it makes you wonder what the alternatives may be. Farmers need to be creative. An apple farmer sells imperfect apples to food processors for mere pennies so they can be turned into jarred apple sauce and not go to waste. Or they start a new venture that turns the fruit into delicious hard ciders.

Just across the Bay Bridge, a new CSA has sprouted and it’s name is music to my ears: Imperfect Produce. As their homepage says, “We believe every fruit and vegetable deserves to be loved. That’s why we give you the chance to buy ugly produce straight from the farm that costs 30% less than produce in grocery stores. By purchasing Imperfect, you get affordable, healthy, delicious produce delivered to your door. And you can feel good about your purchase knowing that you are reducing food waste on farms and protecting the environment.” They currently serve Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville, and I hope the love grows over the bridge and city borders.

Can you see me jumping for joy over here? People are jumping for joy all over the place. In fact, they are jumping for joy all over the world.

Actions by Feeding the 5000 are bringing people together to create a communal meal using food that would otherwise be wasted. My partner documented and wrote about a Feeding the 5000 event that took place during the Ecocity World Summit 2013 in Nantes, France, by asking, “How hard is it to serve a nutritious meal to 5000 people, using dumpster-bound ingredients only?” I kicked myself for not joining him on that trip! has an awesome campaign called @uglyfruitandveg that helps you “find where ugly is being sold all around the world and how to get ugly where you live.” At the time of this writing, they have an active petition asking two of the nation’s largest food retailers – Walmart and Whole Foods – “to add the ‘uglies’ to their store aisles so you can save money, fight hunger and help the environment all in one.”

After you sign the petition (hint, hint), go find an imperfect piece of produce and give it a bite!

ugly fruit

A donation for a favor

“Paper is a big challenge. The mailman always brings more.” I hear some version of that sentiment quite often. Even after they have gone through the process of opting out of credit card and insurance offers, a large percentage of my clients struggle with an influx of unsolicited mail. Envelopes filled with pre-printed return address labels, bundles of cheesy seasonal cards, calendars, and the occasional random penny or nickel, yield slippery piles of unruly papers. And all the senders of these “gifts,” invitations, and pleas want is a donation for their good cause. Ninety-some-odd percent of the time, their attempts result in generous contributions to recycling bins and short-lasting relief on the faces of these clients.

Mind you, I’m all for good causes. I spent many years working in the nonprofit educational realm – art and natural history museums in NYC and San Francisco – and volunteer in my spare time. Nonprofits depend on the support of individual donors, and I’m happy to contribute to their betterment of our world and ways each year. But I had a lapse recently when, for the first time ever, I became a museum member. (One of the great benefits of museum employment was free museum entry at any reciprocating institution. I miss that.)

Weeks after my membership welcome arrived in the mail, so too did a solicitation from another museum. Oh dammit. That’s right. Nonprofits sell our information to other nonprofits, and in my case, the unsolicited mail cycle was resuscitated. I stopped that train mid-track by phoning both organizations to ask that my name be removed from all mailing lists and to request they do not sell or distribute my information. The unwanted mail ceased.

As we find ourselves in the midst of the season of giving, sharing, and storytelling, my hope is this little tale can contribute to the betterment of your desk, entryway, dining room table and/or countertop as the new year begins.

It is extremely rare to find a “donate” page on a nonprofit’s website that provides a box for you to specify if your donation is in honor of someone/s, write a note or message to the organization, and/or allow you to opt out of being added to their mailing list. So here’s what I do. I resort to a tried and true approach and mail a check with a letter. The basic version goes something like this:

To whom it may concern,

Enclosed please find my donation to [awesome nonprofit]. I am happy to donate because of the meaningful and vital work you do.

In exchange, I wish to ask the following: Please do not add me to your mailing lists or sell my information. I hope you will honor my desire to provide support without being inundated by mail that I do not wish to receive. My mailbox is on a diet : )


P.S. Perhaps you’ll consider adding a box to the main donation form page on your website for donors like myself to donate quickly while providing us with an opt out option at the same time. I bet it could help save you time and resources in the future.

Less paper to manage yields more time for things that matter. Think of all the things you can do if you minimize your time shuffling unwanted mail.

And that, my friends, is my gift to you!

There are few more checks to be written over here…

Unexpected thoughts on the label maker

Old school Dymo label maker

Behold the mighty old school label maker! I found this little red beauty while helping a senior client organize a bookcase filled with office supply treats. Asking the usual questions when such a unique artifact appears, I learned that she neither uses it nor has tape for it, but she likes knowing it’s there just in case.

The more high-tech versions of these devices have been and continue to be the topic of many conversations with colleagues and clients alike. For many, the label maker is a staple in their daily work/life diet and the thought of being without one is unimaginable. Others, like myself and my fella environmentally conscious organizer colleague, Miriam Ortiz y Pino, CPO®, of More Than Organized in Albuquerque, NM, have a different perspective. We combined forces and wrote an article, “Unexpected thoughts on the label maker,” for NAPO News, the bimonthly publication of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO). It was published in the September/October 2014 issue, and is republished here by permission.

Continue reading

Giving things away by passing them along

tiny violinistMy great aunt took great joy in giving possessions away during the latter years of her life. I recall one afternoon when she told me she’d had “a talk” with her long-deceased mother-in-law, and that they agreed it was time for the old German chair – a bit of a family heirloom I long admired – to go home with me. She insisted it leave that very day, despite my uncertainty as to whether it would fit in the backseat of the car. (It did.)

She loved knowing the chair had a new home and would frequently ask about it. The chair continues to make me smile, and it gets used every day. But this story isn’t about the chair.

When she passed away I acquired a handful of meaningful items I continue to enjoy. The smallest of these was a tiny silver violinist.

During the years I visited and sipped many cups of tea with my aunt, this little guy and his instrument sat behind me atop the mid-century modern buffet and china cabinet. To me, this was the material manifestation of the proverbial sad song on the world’s tiniest violin. (You know it: the song you mime by rubbing your thumb and forefinger together while making a faux sad face as a friend tells you a story that is far from pitiful.) But I also found it to be quietly uplifting and inspiring. My great aunt and her husband were fans of classical music and loved attending the symphony. Her father (a.k.a. my great grandfather) was a violin teacher.

Up until a few weeks ago, the figurine lived on a ledge above my desk, fiddling a tune for an equally diminutive dancing Ganesh. When I was presented with an invitation to a dear friend’s middle school graduation party, it took no time for me to ponder and determine the perfect gift. A passionate and dedicated violinist since her single digit years, I had a hunch she’d appreciate the story attached to this slightly tarnished fellow. It’s better than anything I ever could have found in a store. Passing along this little token from my biological family to someone who is part of my chosen family felt like the right thing to do. After opening it, she decided it needed to live on top of the piano.

Thank you so much for the tiny violinist! It’s very motivating and it will definitely be a good reminder to practice the violin, in addition to the piano.

Did I mention my great aunt played the piano, too?

Earth Day Special: On Environmentally-Conscious Organizing

self-portrait with compost, recycle, trash signsat solar living instituteA famous amphibial puppet speaking of the color of his felt famously sang, “It’s not easy bein’ green; It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things.” “Green” has seeped into so many things – far too many – that the word has been overused to the point of being meaningless. This is precisely why, two years ago, a group of professional organizers decided to redefine their specialty from green organizing to the more ecologically- and holistically-infused environmentally-conscious organizing.

Steeped in the traditions of voluntary simplicity and sustainable living, this work stems from the values and ethics associated with helping others adapt simple lifestyle changes that support them wherever they are on the environmentally-conscious path. It’s about building awareness and engaging in dialogues to guide clients to a place where they can observe and effect change in the choices they are making each and every day.

Most of us are already working to reduce, reuse and recycle whenever possible, and environmentally-conscious organizers encourage these practices and more. What will create more impactful and lasting change is exceeding these foundational R’s and allowing ourselves to go deeper.

Take, for example, the multi-faceted practice of reducing. Choosing the path of less packaging, reduces the need to recycle or throw away resources. This is especially powerful when you consider that 25% of landfill contents in the U.S. is product packaging. By reducing consumption of single-use disposable plastics (i.e. packaged and bottled water), we reduce the need for more fossil fuels while reducing the risk to ecosystems from oil drilling and transport of these resources. Reducing the need to store cases of plastic bottles creates more physical space while having the added health benefit of reducing your family’s exposure to bisphenol-A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor found in certain plastics. The effects of our choices can be cascading.

When we begin to make time and allow ourselves to rethink our choices, refuse what we don’t need, repair what needs fixing, and let food waste rot into nutritious compost, we’re moving closer to what’s most important in our lives. That’s often the end goal of organizing for many of our clients: creating the time and space to do what matters most.

Each of us has the power, through small acts each day, to make ripples of change in the places where we will see and feel those shifts most directly – in our homes and communities. As Kendra Pierre-Louis wrote in her book, Green Washed, Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet, “…consciousness is a starting point, not an end point.” As we stand on the precipice of Earth Day 2014 (April 22), where are you going to start? Hint: It takes one small step.

This piece was originally written for and posted on NAPO’s Get Organized Blog.

I walked how far for a jalapeño?

jalapeño pepper“Oh darn,” I remember saying out loud as I stood before the cutting board while the sharp aroma of freshly grated horseradish and ginger danced in the air. I was preparing a batch of fire cider, when I realized an ingredient was missing: the jalapeño pepper.

After getting everything else chopped, zested, squeezed and assembled in the jar, I set out for the store. There’s a little corner market of great convenience a block away, but I opted for a grocery destination that’s a bit further afield.

Because the co-op where we do the majority of our grocery shopping doesn’t stock all the basics – like sustainably raised meats (the co-op has no meat unless you want pet food) and breads from a favorite bakery that no other retailer carries –  it’s not uncommon for me to swing by this particular neighborhood market on a somewhat regular basis. The walk over the hill, down the other side, and back again has become part of the weekly grocery  ritual and easily happens more than once or twice a week. The sidewalks on my route are practically empty and that makes it the preferred option over the very flat and far less strenuous alternative along a busy retail corridor just one block away.

On this particular morning, I decided there was no time like the present to squeeze in a morning constitutional while also getting a necessary errand off the list. I admired the changing light of the season and the way it highlighted features and details of the historic Victorians along the way. Blooming flowers in the trees overhead begged passersby like myself for a little nod to their beauty. (Remember, I live in San Francisco and plants are blooming year-round.) At the market I chose a little pepper, paid with exact change (I love when that happens!), slipped said pepper in my pocket, and headed back home.

By the time I unlocked the front door, I had logged 1.6 miles. To some, it may seem absurd to walk so far and take so much time for one little thing. But you know what? This is my kind of multitasking. How often does grocery shopping truly invigorate your body and soul?

More than four weeks after the fact, I can tell you that the results are most invigorating. We are sipping and breathing fire over here!

jalapeno pepper and fire cider

The gift of connection

The countdown to the year-end ritual of flocking to malls and online stores is upon us. Care to guess where you’ll find me? Dashing (as usual) in the opposite direction.

When the holiday freneticism is unavoidable at every turn, there’s something wonderfully delightful and perhaps a little bit deviant about choosing to swim against the mainstream current. I actually manage to avoid stress and languishing in long lines, all while fully embracing the season’s spirit of generosity on my own terms.

I’ve never understood why, as a society, we collectively wait to the last minute – or in this case, the last month of the year – to squeeze in all the big-heartedness and giving we possibly can that could have been applied liberally throughout the previous eleven months of the year. Continue reading

Organizing gift cards and their little friends


They quietly enter our homes by way of auctions, thank yous, prizes, presents, the mail, and even purchases. Infused with good intentions and the hopes of putting them to use sooner than later,  gift cards, gift certificates, store credits, coupons, and promotional cards often wind up sitting around longer than we ever intend.

Between my own house and those of my clients, I’ve encountered small collections of these papers, plastic cards, and torn- and cut-out coupons languishing in baskets, stuffed into folders, magnetized to the refrigerator, shoved in overburdened handbags, tucked into jacket pockets, lost in piles ‘important’ papers, lost in piles of things to sort, stuffed into bags of mail, and waiting in the foyer. Continue reading

Consuming with eyes wide open

An internal dance of joy leapt within me when I read the following line in Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet by Kendra Pierre-Louis:

While we need to be more conscious about what and how much we choose to consume, that consciousness is a starting point, not an end point.

This quote was the perfect finale for my presentation on a panel about environmentally conscious organizing at this year’s NAPO2013 conference. I was thrilled to be one of three ECO organizers speaking on a topic so near and dear but more so about spreading ideas that I hope will help create ripples of awareness and change in an industry of individuals who routinely find themselves on the front lines of communicating with people about stuff and the choices we make as consumers.

My talk focused on conscious consumption and addressed how we can begin to make more mindful decisions because our choices and habits as consumers ultimately affect our actions when we’re standing in front of our trash and recycling bins. Continue reading