December 4, 2009

Perfectly Bruised Produce

In my time as coordinator of the Glean for the City program, I witnessed many ways in which our food system is shaped by human biases about food that often have nothing to do with taste or nutrition.

In general, consumers demand aesthetically perfect produce. We toss pears back if they have a small bruise. Melons with any softness are left to rot at the bottom of produce displays. Shoppers feel that bruising and physical imperfections indicate poor taste.

This negative perception extends even to the fields. When people go to farms to pick their own apples, they are reluctant to harvest directly from the ground – even when the apples there had fallen off the tree within that very day.

When we would go to Crooked Run Orchard in Purcellville Virginia, for instance, we’d find fields filled with apples on the ground – all of which had been left behind and would have rotted if not for us. Most were slightly bruised – and at first, even our volunteers were reluctant to scoop them up.

Sam and Uta Brown, the owners of Crooked Run, hate to see the apples on the ground ignored. “Apples fall off of the tree because they are ripe. Shoppers are just afraid to pick them up, especially if they have a small bruise.”

We’d use this as an opportunity to discuss important waste issues. As many farmers explained over the harvest season, you can’t judge an apple by its skin. Bruising on the surface is not always an indication of bruising on the interior.

During one trip to West End Farmer’s market, I plainly asked a peach grower ‘what does a bruise mean’. Without hesitation he replied, “That means it’s perfect. Take a bite, you won’t find a sweeter peach, I promise you that.” After asking for a few to take home, I subsequently inhaled 4 bruised peaches.

I am happy to report that our clients are getting it right when it comes to produce. A few weeks ago, there was a soft cantaloupe that nobody seemed to want to take with them. One client happily snatched it up, and the next month she came back raving about it. “I just cut off a small bruise,” she said, leaning back with a grin to proclaim: “but the inside was SWEEEET!” She said it loud, and everyone in the hall looked up. It was music to our ears.

I want to thank Sam and Uta Brown of Crooked Run Orchard for their continued support during the gleaning season. They donated roughly 7,000 lbs. of fresh apples to the food pantry, and we look forward to going back for more next year!

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