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In Defense of Ugly Fruits and Vegetables

I remember as a kid being a little OCD about the way food was served to me. I liked my sandwiches cut a certain way. Food items that shared a plate should never touch. If soup was one degree too cool, I wouldn't dare bring it up to my lips. But a lot has changed as an adult. Although I still like my soup somewhere between scalding and Hellfire, I'm a lot less touchy about foods—particularly how they look.

carrots_with_stems_picWhen shopping for produce—be it at the supermarket or farmers’ market, I will often take the fruits and vegetables that have seen better days—or those that just look a little gnarled. It's not like I take pity on them—they're just carrots and beets after all!—but I understand what food waste means. And that so many Americans still want that perfectly round and shiny apple or no apple at all isn't helping the cause.

One-third of perfectly edible food in this country winds up in places other than hungry bellies. We toss out so much food it's obscene. We let produce that we took the time to inspect and purchase rot inside our refrigerators. And those ugly fruits and vegetables? Some of them never even make it to the markets because the store buyers believe we won't eat them. But we're better than that, aren't we?

Perhaps you need a little convincing. A bit more incentive to eat those fruits and vegetables that, shall we say, have character? Then check out British photographer Tim Smyth's new book called "Defective Carrots." According to Treehugger, the book contains "56 photographs of ‘optically deficient’ carrots that are deemed unfit for consumer consumption at a sorting farm in north Yorkshire."

What Smyth found was that 10 to 20 percent of the carrots in the U.K. never make it to market if they don't look picturesque. They're fed through a scanner, called Focus, which measures each carrot "live on-screen as it rushes by on a high-speed conveyor belt, and rejects it if it doesn’t meet the pencil-straight standards for sellable carrots," explains Treehugger. That's a lot of carrots rejected only because of how they look. If they were human, of course, we'd call this discrimination.

carrots_pic"The rejects are fascinating to look at," reports Treehugger. "While some of the carrots are extremely distorted and bizarre-looking, others may be off by only one degree. Some have black fungal growth, are split down the middle, have daintily crossed ‘legs,’ and strike oddly human-like poses. These carrots suffer from deformities called “fanging” and “scabbing,” as described in the Focus manual. All are striking, beautiful, and captivating in an eerie sort of way."

That Smyth turned these into art is inspiring, but it's also motivating. It's a wakeup call about just how far removed we are from our food system and why we need to get more connected. We can do this by supporting local growers whenever we can. Food sold at farmers’ markets don't go through scanners that reject items based on slight appearance issues. We can do a better part in making sure no food goes to waste—ugly or not. Besides, we all know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder anyway.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Second carrot photo by Jeremy Keith on Wikimedia Commons

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