(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Palos Verdes Peninsula High School

Opinion: America’s next top produce

Picture this: a small percentage of innumerable contestants are allowed to continue on to consecutive levels, each one having to prove its worth through its appearance. No, this isn’t “America’s Next Top Model;” it’s America’s food culture.

Grocery stores normally stock attractive, perfectly formed fruits and vegetables, which can lead consumers to believe this is all there is. However, there are billions of pounds of produce that are filtered out between the harvest and stocking the shelves and sent to occupy landfills simply because they are scratched or otherwise “ugly.” In fact, there is enough food being wasted in the world every year that could feed 3 billion people, according to the Stop Wasting Food movement.

Although many believe ugly produce is unsafe for consumption or somehow less desirable than its perfect counterparts, we should start making use of it to optimize the amount of food that is produced and level the playing field for food deserts in low income areas while keeping the landfills free of methane producing food waste.

When the greenhouse gas effect is mentioned, most people think immediately of carbon dioxide (CO2). However, there are many heat trapping gases that contribute to this effect, such as methane and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), that have a much higher potency than CO2. According to a 2014 report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), landfills produce 34% of all methane emissions in America and 22% of those landfills are comprised of food waste.

In nature, when a piece of fruit is discarded after consumption by an animal, the fruit decomposes and returns nutrients back to the soil which it came from. When said animal is a human who tosses fruit in a trash can, it will ultimately come to occupy a landfill. The fruit never makes it to the soil to return its nutrients and instead gives off methane, which, according to Dana Gunders from the National Resources Defense Council, is six times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide.

The huge environmental problem isn’t being caused by a population unwilling to consume fruits. A large portion of America’s population live in food deserts, areas that have a lack of whole food sellers or grocers, which makes it extremely difficult to procure fresh fruits and vegetables on a regular basis. Residents in food deserts primarily consume processed foods, which leads to prevalence of diet related diseases like diabetes in such areas, according to a study done by Indiana University.

While implementing more healthy markets in food deserts would alleviate the issue, this is easier said than done. Many of these areas are located deep in urban settings, far from farms. Produce becomes damaged during transportation and browns after long periods of time and laws prevent such foods from being sold in markets due to concerns over safety.

So how do we reform such a flawed, self sustaining system? One method gave rise to baby carrots.

Baby carrots, as you may have guessed, are not pulled from the ground. They are whittled from reject carrots that are deemed too misshapen to be sold alongside “normal” carrots. Mike Yurosek was a California carrot farmer in the 1980s who found himself unable to profit from the vast majority of his crop. The ugly carrots were grown in the same conditions as the normal ones and came from the same seeds, which meant they were still perfectly good for consumption. He liked the idea of having bagged vegetables ready to eat and eventually developed the peeled and cut carrots that we know today, making a profit on the “new” type of carrot.

Just as the ugly carrot problem was solved, much of this issue is the way food is marketed. If ugly produce was blended or mashed, consumers would never know or care what the food looked like originally. The problem also lies in the culture that surrounds food in America. Take the meat industry, for example; countries with a culture built around minimizing waste employ snout to tail methods of butchering and consumption, meaning that they use every part of the animal and have dishes that contain parts like the intestine or foot. Those cuts of meat are not found in the average American’s diet. The same mindset can be applied to produce. We are raised to seek out the best in the bunch, which translates in the grocery store as the most flawless fruit or vegetable, just like in every advertisement. When everyone only goes for perfect fruit, farmers have to produce more just to sell the small percentage of their yield that is perfectly shaped.

To completely solve this problem, the agricultural sector must be reformed, as much of the food waste occurs before consumers get a say. Ideally, farmers will find new outlets for their sudden influx produce, such as homeless shelters or markets in impoverished areas. Restaurants could start using ugly produce in dishes and smoothie shops could completely switch to ugly produce. For now, there should be more campaigns to change the mindset of the consumer when it comes to choosing produce in markets. As a consumer, you can start learning which blemishes are safe and purchase flawed fruits.

In a sustainable world, America’s next top produce could very well be hidelicioso.