Writing about food waste for The Atlantic back in 2014, Elizabeth Segran gestured at both the shoppers who refuse to buy imperfect-looking fruit as well as the grocers who refuse to stock the shelves with any wonky-looking wares. “Grocery stores routinely trash produce for being the wrong shape or containing minor blemishes,” Doug Rauch, the former president of the Trader Joe’s Company, told her.
But that assumes such produce even reaches the stores. Quoting workers and experts at a variety of vantage points in the food system, The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg also reports that, “Vast quantities of fresh produce grown in the U.S. are left in the field to rot, fed to livestock or hauled directly from the field to landfill, because of unrealistic and unyielding cosmetic standards.”
“In my mind, the desire for perfect produce came about in the 1940s as housewives adapted to widespread refrigeration and new CPG [consumer packaged goods] products,” Eve Turow Paul, the author of A Taste of Generation Yum, writes in an email. “Suddenly, you could get a pineapple in Chicago in January. Wonderbread hit shelves a decade before. Perfection and manicured foods came to represent safety and new technology.”
It’s easy to see how this obsession might become amplified in an era of high foodie-ism and Instagram where a sort of heirloom airbrushing has taken hold. Writing in The Times in 2014, Pete Wells christened the extension of this phenomenon in restaurants as “camera cuisine,” where dishes are tailored for the patron as well as a “global club whose members, checking out their phones or laptops, constitute an invisible gallery in the dining room.”
Wells relays a story of being “shutter-shamed” after posting a picture of trout that did not meet a certain communal artistic benchmark. The retail version of this experience might be a farmer’s market where a bunch of ramps or sheaths of leeks would be shunted aside if they couldn’t pass muster on a Nancy Meyers set.
Paul pushes back against the idea that the anointed few seated at the head of the table might be oblivious to the cause of food waste. “Especially in the last year, ‘foodies’ and chefs have catapulted the issue of food waste into popular conversations,” she adds, naming initiatives by chefs and public intellectuals such as Dan Barber and Roy Choi as well as the pu pu platter of coverage of the issue in elite food magazines.
Last year, the Obama administration announced a public-private campaign to halve the more than two million calories that Americans waste annually by the year 2030 by focusing on improving food efficiency, recycling, decoding food labels, and finding ways to deliver food to the one-in-six Americans that are hungry. Meanwhile, start-ups like the Bay Area’s Imperfect Produce are starting to deliver ugly but otherwise consumable goods at a discount.