A Love Affair with Imperfection

Let’s start with the heartbreak: In the United States, 40 percent of edible food goes to waste, and a significant portion of that food is wasted even before it hits our plates. In many cases, food is wasted for reasons that are completely arbitrary. For instance, carrots that are twisted in shape (instead of long and straight), or heads of cauliflower that are unusually small (or large), can be rejected on the ground at the farm where they’re grown; farmers know these cosmetic imperfections mean they won’t be able to sell them in the market. It’s not because the produce isn’t nutritious or delicious, it is! But, America’s collective standards of beauty for produce don’t currently include tiny cauliflowers or corkscrew-shaped carrots. Underutilized, but incredibly edible plant parts such as broccoli “fines” (tiny bits of the florets that fall off during processing, which are perfect for soup) and leaves are also wasted.

This isn’t just heartbreaking for farmers, who lose all of the time and resources they put into growing that food, it’s heartbreaking for all of us. As food lovers who care about the people and the planet, we’re mortified. Food waste decomposing in the anaerobic (meaning without oxygen) environment of a landfill creates methane, a greenhouse gas that has an effect on atmospheric warming that’s 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

But there’s hope. Chefs all over the nation are beginning to find ways to use imperfect produce in their restaurants, and new startup food businesses are beginning to distribute “ugly” fruits and vegetables from farms to home cooks.

At Bon Appétit, our chefs have been informally sourcing cosmetically challenged produce from our Farm to Fork partners for years, using bent leeks in soups and stocks, misshapen squash in tacos and gratins, and mashing up ugly potatoes.

While we’ve been in love with “ugly” vegetables for a long time, in 2014 we decided to make our love affair official by launching the Imperfectly Delicious Produce (IDP) program. Through the IDP program, we work with farmers, produce distributors, and chefs in more than 30 states to get cosmetically imperfect fruits and vegetables into the supply chain and onto our guests’ plates. In just the two years following the program’s launch, we rescued more than 2 million pounds of produce from going to waste on the farm or during processing, and that number is growing every day.

Our chefs appreciate the creative challenge that comes with finding love for these unloved (but perfectly good) fruits and vegetables in their dishes, and the farmers we partner with appreciate getting compensated for their hard work.