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

And it happens to me

It may come as a refreshing surprise to learn that I am not immune to impulsive purchases. The most common are farmer-generated and occur at outdoor markets year-round (at least here in the San Francisco Bay Area). Visually inspiring and delicious, veggies and fruits often lead to impromptu desires. That’s me (right) communing with a bundle of scapes at a friend’s farm stand at the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market in Seattle last month. The temptation was strong, but I resisted them despite the lure of their curls!

But here’s a first for me: while leaving the Mission Community Market last night, I got side-tracked not by produce, but by a towel. Continue reading

Chicken in a jar

This is a post about changing a habit. Habits take time. They require practice. Practice makes almost perfect. Why almost perfect? I believe that perfection is a perceived destination and that the journey is the actual destination.

If you’re like me, I’m on several journeys at any given time. This is about my journey to deepen a habit: to reduce my consumption of unnecessary waste and single use items. While this is something I’ve been working on for years and have gotten very good at, I was inspired to up my game after meeting Beth Terry, blogger extraordinaire and tireless crusader of My Plastic-free Life, in 2010. At the time, Beth interviewed me for an awesome piece she wrote about bringing our own reusable containers out into the world.

When I saw her April 17 post on Facebook announcing she would be attending the Lunchbox Project SF, a pre-Earth Day “large-scale Day of Action in which San Franciscans will order lunch in our own, reusable containers,” I kept my schedule clear so I could meet her for lunch with the very thing that brought us together in the first place! Continue reading

A homegrown recipe for multitasking

I’m sitting at the kitchen table absorbing whatever rays of reflected or direct sunlight are finding their way through the east- and south-facing windows on this, the shortest day of the year. I’m also absorbing the heat emanating from the oven as a kabocha squash browns in preparation for it’s entry into today’s menu. The cherry tomato plant out my back door (below) is also working the light, this despite overnight temperatures in the 40s and the fact that it’s December 21.

cherry tomato

On days like today, when I’m not seeing any clients, I like to maximize the work-from-home opportunities to do one of my favorite things: cook.

“What!?” you may be thinking, “You’ve got time to cook while you’re supposed to be using your office time to balance the books, take care of billing matters, and work on outreach?” Continue reading

Band-Aids, beans and label things

During my years attending Rutgers University, there was one very tall building near the main campus in downtown New Brunswick that literally stood out: the appropriately white and sterile-looking corporate headquarters that was (and still is) Johnson & Johnson. Knowing they were based right there led my young self to assume that every Band-Aid ® and gauze pad I’d ever purchased in the red, white, and blue box was manufactured somewhere nearby.

Fast forward to today, more than (ahem) twenty years later. A box of Band-Aids ® sits beside me. Times have changed. Their distinctive logo remains the same, but the box design has been modernized in ways unimaginable back then. The FSC, or Forest Stewardship Council logo appears on the box. In a nutshell, this means their boxes are made from responsibly managed forests. The box also reveals that this all-American seeming product is made in…Brazil! There’s a possible irony there that I’m just going to avoid for today.

Continue reading

Positively jarring experiences

Once upon a time, I decided it’d be cool to learn how to make a gigantic flat of luscious tomatoey goodness last a long long time. I would purchase San Marzanos from my friends at Mariquita Farm and turn them into sauce that I would stow in the freezer for the winter months. Freezing was great, but longevity was limited.

I’d always wanted to try my hand at canning, but the risk of accidentally creating a lethal stockpile of botulism kept any attempts at bay. I wanted professional guidance and in 2009, I stumbled upon classes offered by a the folks of Happy Girl Kitchen Co., a local independent producer of yummy things in jars. (Trust me, try the okra sometime!)

I signed up without hesitation and took a class…

tomatoes!chopping tomatoes

tomatoes and basil ready for canningjars of tomatoes in the canning pots

Continue reading

No pain, no gain: On taming and tasting the nettle

a bag of nettles

My literal first hand experience with nettles provided one of the most uncomfortable, if not incredibly painful, kitchen memories on record and an important lesson: never plunge your hand into a bag of unfamiliar greens.

How was I to imagine that anything that arrived in the absolutely luscious and magical biweekly veggie box from the nice people of Mariquita Farm could ever cause twenty minutes of misery one day and a declaration of having a new favorite food the next?

As an unofficial member of the recently and aptly named “Danger Nettle Club,” I do hereby wish to share the magic and beauty of an unexpected culinary joy. Continue reading

Leftovers to go

Lunch in a Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco

You’ve been here before: sitting in a restaurant staring at the uneaten portion of your meal that could not find its way to your stomach. Perhaps you’re out to dinner with your family and the kids barely touch their dishes. In both instances the food gets packed up and brought home. Leftovers for the next day.

The next day arrives and you open the fridge. Dang! It smells like the  leftovers. The origami-like cardboard carton leaked. That’s right those things don’t really seal in the freshness. Or, the clamshell container with the compartments that organize your foods and prevent them from touching has failed at its mission. You were in a rush to get home and the slippery food items sloshed over their borders and oozed out of the container. The plastic bag in which you transported it is sullied with food slim. Yuck! What a mess. Sometimes leftovers are more work than they are worth.

Or are they?

In more ways than one, there is a better way. Bring your own trusted container(s) from home.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1  – You decide you’re going out to eat. You know it’s a place where leftovers are common.

Step 2 – Before leaving the house, you grab a food storage container or two (glass jar, metal tin, plastic container…whatever you use!) and put them in your favorite reusable bag. Remember to grab the bag as you head out the door!

Step 3 – You enjoy your meal and find you’ve had your share with plenty to spare.

Step 4 – If preempted by the waitperson who asks if you’d like the leftovers packed up to go, let them know you’ve got it covered. Smile and show them your container(s).

Step 5 – Nonchalantly bring your container(s) to the table and transfer the leftovers. Snap on the lid(s) and head home.

For those of you who are more visual, it looks kind of like this:

no waste packaging of leftovers in a restaurant

an empty platepacking leftovers to go in a restaurant into a container from home

Voila! You’ve got secure food transport, tomorrow’s lunch, and nary a piece of disposal packaging!