The math is astonishing: When it comes to the simple arithmetic of hunger versus domestic food production, hunger shouldn’t exist in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans waste up to 40 percent of the food they produce every year. And yet, this same agency tells us that in 2016 more than 41 million Americans were food insecure, 13 million of whom were children. This egregious imbalance isn’t limited to the U.S. Globally, we produce enough food to feed 10 billion people, and yet close to 1 billion go without. While we’re not want for enough food in total, production and distribution will need to change dramatically before these numbers can balance out.
Photo by Getty Images/vm
There’s waste at each level of food production: on farms, in supermarkets, in restaurants, and in our homes. Each of these has its own criteria for rejecting or wasting food. But the underlying reasons for the waste are primarily based on aesthetics; a lot of produce is tossed aside not because it is inedible, but because it doesn’t fit the rigid cultural criteria for beauty.
The standard for food perfection has become so distorted that it has little to do with the healthful value of the fruit. Imperfections in the produce world can range from knobby-kneed carrots to bruised apples and scarred peaches. Bruises, discoloration, softness, and holes are all offenses that can land a perfectly healthful and nutritious vegetable in the garbage. Americans have made their obsession with the aesthetic beauty of food a national pastime. The phenomena of photographing food for Instagram has done little to temper this obsession, with hashtags like #foodporn and its 160 million (and counting) associated photos of purported food perfection.
Photo by Adobe Stock/farbled_01
Fortunately, there’s an insistent and growing tide against the pursuit of food perfection. “Ugly food,” as it’s known, has become trendy and countercultural. And more importantly, there are now many proactive organizations in the U.S. working to divert ugly food from waste streams. The new movement has an old name: gleaning.
Gleaning dates back to the Old Testament of the Bible, where the practice is referenced multiple times. There, it says that fallen fruits and the edges of fields should be left untouched by farmers, in order to feed the poor. The practice of charity during harvest is referenced in the Quran and in ancient rabbinic literature, too. Until the late 18th century, landless citizens in Europe (of which there were many) were given legal protection to glean, and the process was immortalized by many well-known artists, from Vincent van Gogh to Jean-François Millet.
Photo by Adobe Stock/TomFreeze
In the latter half of the 20th century, it was not uncommon for farmers, restaurants, and supermarkets to prohibit the practice of gleaning, as they feared liability and the risk of prosecution if someone were to get ill from this discarded food. Picture city dumpsters painfully full of good produce and day-old bread, but soup kitchens packed with citizens going hungry. Fortunately, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996 greatly reduced the liability potential donors could carry from food donations. Today, only actions of intentional and gross negligence can be prosecuted. This has reawakened the gleaning culture and has led to popular offshoots, such as dumpster diving.
Gleaning organizations work directly with everyone in the food supply chain. They may team up with volunteers to pick apple drops from large orchards, or work with supermarket managers to arrange to pick up food that has passed its sell-by date but is still good. Through a network of local food pantries, they distribute the food to those who live in food deserts.
Photo by Getty Images/liveslow
While these gleaning organizations are admirable, they’re a small trickle in the endless stream of food waste. Individuals must work to divert the needless waste at home, and when they do, they’ll happily find it’s in their best economic interest. One very simple way to do this is to meet the stream at its source: the farmer and their farm.
Photo by Kate MacLean
Many farmers don’t bother bringing ugly produce — known as “seconds” — to market, as this means packing, displaying, not selling, and then repacking many back-breaking pounds of vegetables. Often, this produce gets left behind at the farm to be fed to pigs, or composted and turned back into soil. While farmers are fluent in finding a use for waste, it would be far more efficient for this food to be consumed by the humans for whom it was originally intended. Consumers can thus approach sellers directly at their local farmers markets and request bulk orders of seconds. With a bulk order of this discounted crop, it benefits the farmer to sell.
The best time of year for these requests is late summer or early fall, when the last of the summer crops are harvested. The race begins against the first frosts, the coming winter, and the scarcity of storage space. Farmers likely won’t have seconds with them at the market, but you can begin the conversation there. Here’s how:
- First, inquire what seconds, damaged, or ugly fruit they might have available.
- Agree upon a price and bulk number of pounds.
- Arrange to either pick up your purchase at a future market or, better yet (and for a further reduction in price), you can arrange to glean these products directly from the fields.
- Aim to preserve these damaged fruits and vegetables within a day or two for maximum freshness and yield.
- Donate a fraction of your preserves to your local food pantry.
The resurgence of ugly produce has led in kind to a resurgence of canned and fermented food production. A bruised tomato is perfectly edible, but it will become inedible quickly as the bacterial process takes over, leading to swift decay. You can eat that bruised tomato when you buy it because the process of decay hasn’t yet begun, but you can’t eat 5 pounds of scarred tomatoes in 24 hours. Herein lies the interest in food preservation.
Photo by Adobe Stock/casanisa
Many home cooks today missed the generational inheritance of food preservation knowledge. Their parents were raised in the post-war years of American domestic opulence and the nascence of factory food production. Home preservation became at best socially taboo and lower-class, and at worst dangerous and irresponsible. Because of this gap, many home cooks are learning anew the pleasure, power, and security that comes with preserving their own produce.
You may feel comfortable preserving the basics, such as dilly beans and apple butter. These can quickly become staples in your pantry and are much loved and needed throughout the year. But you can also add simple decadence to your preserved pantry with the seconds you’ve gleaned, creating flavors that will enliven meats, grains, breads, and root vegetables.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Didier Doceux
This recipe is a fresh adaptation of a classic French condiment. ‘Potimarron’ squash is a delicious accompaniment to any meat, but it’s a particularly great match for pork. However, this cultivar may be hard to find, in which case you can substitute any winter squash into the recipe.
Yield: approximately 5 pints.
- 2-1/2 pounds ‘Potimarron’ squash, peeled and cubed
- 4 yellow onions, diced
- 2 cups vinegar
- 1-1/2 cups brown sugar
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 sticks cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons fresh grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon mace
- 1 cup golden raisins
- In a large pot, bring squash, onions, vinegar, and sugar to a boil, and then turn down heat. Cook over medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Lower heat, and add spices and raisins. Stir occasionally until the mixture takes on the consistency of jam, about 45 minutes, then funnel into sterilized jars.
- Pressure can any chutney that you won’t be able to consume or share within 1 month.
Photo by Getty Images/Marta-F
Ideal as a tastier, richer base for any dish that calls for canned tomatoes, this coulis is adapted from a recipe from my aunt, who lives in the French Alps. Although the recipe calls for piment d’espelette, a chili powder or paste found at specialty food stores, hot paprika is a readily available substitute.
Yield: 3 to 4 pints.
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 5 pounds plum tomatoes, peeled
- 1 pound yellow onions, diced
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1-1/2 cups cooking wine
- 1 cup white sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon piment d’espelette
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon mustard powder
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- Heat oil in a large pot, then cook tomatoes and onions with salt and pepper over low heat for 10 minutes, or until translucent.
- Immersion blend the mixture, or run through a food mill to purée.
- Return to pot and add cooking wine, sugar, and spices. Simmer for 20 minutes, then funnel into sterilized jars.
- Proceed to canning method of your choice, or keep in the fridge for more immediate consumption.
Photo by Stocksy/Kristopher Orr
This simple and decadent preservation of peaches will jazz up any season’s bread and tea cakes. Try the recipe using plums or pears instead, or add freshly whipped cream to ensure maximum enjoyment.
Yield: approximately 8 pints.
- 5 pounds peaches
- 2 cups sugar
- 5 cups water
- Blanch the peaches, and peel off the skins. (You can leave the skins on if you rigorously wash the peaches.) De-stone and quarter.
- Divvy up peaches among your sterilized jars.
- Create a simple syrup by boiling the sugar and water together until sugar is dissolved.
- Pour the boiling syrup over the peaches, making sure to completely cover the fruit.
- Proceed to canning method of your choice, or keep in the fridge for more immediate consumption.
Kate MacLean is a mother, farmer, and writer living in the hills of central Vermont. Her musings about farm life can be found on Instagram @LongestAcresFarm.