On Blemishes

“You know what they say, girls, blemished in the uterus, blemished for life.”

And so began our tour of the Miglioresse Farm outside of Soverato, during a grand Calabrese adventure last spring. This declaration came to to us in a large warehouse and processing facility on the farm, but not from the farmer and owner of the land, but by way of Donatella, a women’s group leader and agricultural advocate who, for reasons that remain vague to this day, was accompanying us.

The blemishes in question had not, in fact, originated in utero (unless there is something I have heretofore completely misunderstood about botany), but, in fact, in the maturation of Miglioresse’s tomatoes. But these tomatoes had been deemed blemished – whether it was due to slight discoloration or misshapenness – and therefore unsuitable for sale in their original form. Miglioresse Farm simply takes this in stride and processes all of their blemished fruits into sauces and jams and tapenades and other treats where the unaffected flavor and nutrients of the questionable produce can shine, despite its outward exterior.

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Blemished for life in California

Donatella’s point, though rather oddly phrased, was not without reason. We have come to expect our produce to look like it sprang forth from the earth fully formed, smooth and shiny, bright and round, plump and juicy or tart and crisp, however we have been told it should look and taste. But the funny thing about fruits and vegetables is that most of them grow in dirt, and they have for thousands of years. And in the dirt they are exposed to elements, and temperature fluctuations, and occasionally bugs that are looking for a little snack. And these same bugs have been seeking out snacks for all of history, eating holes through leaves, or perhaps blocking photosynthesis and causing a slight discoloration. But humanity somehow has survived eating this imperfect produce, without Roundup to kill the bugs, or laboratories to modify the genetics to ensure all tomatoes are a perfect sphere, all lettuce uniformly green. Not to mention, those eggplants we eat, those zucchini, those strawberries? They’re all living organisms, just like humans – so…if we don’t all look the same, why should our food?

There are 7 billion people on this planet. About 1 out of every 8 of them are classified as mal- or undernourished. We produce enough food worldwide to feed 12 billion people. Throwing away blemished fruit is not the only reason the math doesn’t add up, but it’s certainly one of the easiest to address. The food is there, it exists, it is full of calories and nutrients and all of the things people need, but rarely even finds an opportunity go to market, instead being discarded by producers at the point of origin.

In the last few months, a Portuguese entrepreneur named Isabel Soares has been gaining attention for her new co-op Fruta Feia, which connects producers of blemished produce with a market eager to consume its unaffected goodness. After less than a year in operation, they had prevented nearly 40 tons of food waste – a number that might seem tiny globally, but is impressive and significant, particularly in a smaller country like Portugal.

Projects like this are important, as are farmers willing to bring their “cosmetically challenged fruit” to market (albeit at a lower price point), and, businesses like Miglioresse, who see blemished fruit not as a waste of their valuable time and land, but as the perfect ingredient for a jam or passata. 

Ultimately, though, addressing this particular aspect of food waste requires producers who do not approach their farm like a factory, but instead have business models that allow for the flexibility to send some fruit to market, and the rest to the stove.

It is, in the end, just one more point in the argument against factory farming, in the argument that our food needs to be produced with a holistic and not single-minded approach. Food is flexible. It can be eaten raw or cooked, straight off the vine, or cooked down for hours. There is no food in the world that can only be consumed in one way, and therefore it should not be produced as if there is only one way to purchase it. An assembly line approach is for uniformity, and while there are certainly patterns, there is no universal uniformity in eating habits.

Blemished fruit is not condemned fruit. It might not serve one purpose, but it certainly serves another.

 

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