Aesthetics and Food

Right on the heels of my post earlier today, I come across this at Quartz, “One in six Americans are going hungry—ugly fruits and veggies may be the solution,” which addresses class bias in produce availability. It is an aspect of the larger fetishization of produce and the romance of Nature, namely, that the produce so beloved in upper income grocery stores is selected as much for its aesthetics as any other quality, and the demand for “pretty” (unblemished, unspoiled, natural, the fantasy of perfect vegetables) is part of the reason why produce is thrown away. It’s too ugly for the wealthy to bother with.

Food waste, especially produce waste, is outrageously high in the US. I suspect that markets (groceries, restaurants, specialty food shops) that cater to the wealthiest 20% produce a disproportionate amount of that waste. The former president of Trader Joe’s, Doug Rauch, can’t stand this.

“Grocery stores routinely trash produce for being the wrong shape or containing minor blemishes,” [Rauch] tells me. After three decades in the grocery business, Rauch retired four years ago to devote himself to investigating and addressing the problem. The USDA estimates that 31% of food produced in America goes uneaten every year, amounting to a loss of $161.6 billion. “Here we are in the richest nation in the history of the world in terms of food production, yet one in six Americans is going hungry,” he says.

Rauch wants to take a stab at tackling this inefficiency in America’s food system. The solution seems obvious to him: Couldn’t we take the excesses of the wealthy and give them to the poor? This is precisely the concept behind Daily Table, a grocery store he is launching this fall in Roxbury, a low-income Boston suburb. Rauch plans to salvage food discarded by supermarkets and sell it at very low cost to consumers who would not otherwise have the means to adequately feed themselves. If this experiment works, he plans to open stores like it around the country.

He wants to get food that relatively wealthy neighborhoods take for granted and distribute it into food constrained locations at prices the residents can actually afford. This isn’t some boutique organic farmers market set up with limited days and hours, selling to the hipsters of the trendy locations. This is food for City Heights. These are the kinds of vegetables that places like North Park Produce supply at low cost in decent quantities, but with a shrug because sometimes they are wilted, battered, with a moldy patch, a misshapen stalk, a bit of softness, or of really weird sizes and shapes. It’s half the price of Ralphs – whaddayawant?

Rauch is running into some issues from the customer side, too. There are a number of people who are pretty offended by and suspicious of being sold the “rejects” from the upper class:

Rauch has been meeting with members of the Roxbury community to win their support and better understand their needs, but the cultural barriers may be the most difficult ones to navigate, particularly since the store has already received negative press for being a repository for rich people’s garbage. “Let’s face it, if someone asked me if I would like a second helping of food waste, the same answer for anybody in America would be to ‘no’,” says Rauch.

Gee, poor people have pride in themselves and their labor, and they are not just the humble beneficiaries of the wealthy’s noblesse oblige. Get rid of your own garbage.

Of course, not so many years ago, a lot of what is now rejected by the Bristol Farms and Whole Foods crowd was unapologetically sold in everyday groceries. Produce was plain, you didn’t get three selections of organic kale (curly, purple and laticino, just at my local Ralphs), and you were matter of fact about having to pick stuff over. Now you get people having hissy fits on Yelp because they saw A Spoiled Tomato in the bin of tomatoes at the cheap grocery, followed by a haughty “and that’s why I shop at Whole Foods!”, as if you don’t just wave down the produce guy and point out the rotten piece while you carefully select from the dozens there that are perfectly fine.

Wimps. They don’t seem to realize the biggest spoilage in the room is their own pampered self.

The class bias of Whole Foods Nation is one of the factors driving rising food costs, especially perishable food costs, and putting ordinary vegetables at the outer edges of average food budgets. Bitch wrote up “The Cost of Kale: How Foodie Trends Can Hurt Low-Income Families” to point out that even traditionally “trash” foods, like kale, collards, ox tails and ham hocks are getting gentrified as they become hip – and thus immensely profitable to merchants pandering to upper-income foodies. It’s not that ugly food goes to cheaper places. It’s that all players in the food chain strive to maximize profits (because, hello, they want to keep their farms and businesses running), they pursue the higher end markets and the food that isn’t fit for there is more likely to go into processed foods than to end up in low-end markets. What does get there is pretty dinged up, but if prepared and eaten immediately, usually tastes OK.

Less emphasis on looks. More attention to nutrition and food chain efficiency.


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Posted in Culture, Food

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