Pretty is skin-deep, but embracing 'ugly food' could save pennies and the planet

Food scraps, like celery stalk butts, carrot tops and onion skins, can be used to make a delicious vegetable stock instead of being thrown in the garbage. Tracy Briggs / The Forum
Food scraps, like celery stalk butts, carrot tops and onion skins, can be used to make a delicious vegetable stock instead of being thrown in the garbage. Tracy Briggs / The ForumTracy Briggs / The Forum

FARGO — It's been said beauty is only skin-deep, but does that apply if you're talking about potato skins?

Statistics show Americans are turned off by food they see as "ugly." Consequently, farmers, the planet and our taste buds suffer.

Over the next couple of weekends, Northern Plains Sustainable Ag, Cass-Clay Food Partners, Ugly Food of the North and the North Dakota Culinary Institute Project are trying to raise awareness about the better utilization of foods and flavors by screening the film "Wasted! The Story of Food Waste" and by hosting the 40th annual Northern Plains Food and Farming Conference.

First, what exactly is "ugly food"? Travis Rosenbluth, a chef and project manager for the North Dakota Culinary Institute Project and a student of chef Dan Barber, the man behind the wasted food movement, says it's food that doesn't look like what we expect a typical type of a food to look like. He elaborates as he picks up a big misshapen potato, jokingly calling it a "Picasso potato."

"This potato is as good as any. It would make good potato soup, hash browns or french fries," he says. "But you'd never see it in the grocery story because it's not perfect. To some, the aesthetics are intimidating."

Rosenbluth says we've been educated to think our fruits and vegetables should all look the same. If they don't, we might think they're spoiled or not as good as the perfect ones.

Because of that, ugly food often gets thrown away before consumers even get a chance to see it. Rosenbluth says in fact, 40 percent of all food waste is ugly food. As a chef, he says he embraces it because it's cheaper to purchase and just as good to eat.

'Ugly food' like this 'Picasso potato' accounts for 40 percent of all food waste. Tracy Briggs / The Forum
'Ugly food' like this 'Picasso potato' accounts for 40 percent of all food waste. Tracy Briggs / The ForumTracy Briggs / The Forum
"I think all chefs should be contacting local farmers to use their ugly food," he says. "There's a practicality to it. We have to think about the bottom line, how to stretch our food dollars."

The same could be said for ordinary food consumers who want to save a few pennies by buying produce that isn't pretty. Rosenbluth says in addition to cooking with ugly food, he encourages people to utilize food scraps.

"When I look at food like this, I see potential flavor," he remarks as he points to a bowl of onion skins, carrot tops and the butt-end of a celery stalk. "If you're going to strain it or emulsify it anyway, it doesn't matter what it looks like going in."

Rosenbluth says scraps most people might throw in the garbage can be combined with water and boiled overnight to make a rich, delicious and economical vegetable stock. Watch Rosenbluth demonstrate how he makes ugly food delicious at inforum.com.

Verna Kragnes says the theme of food waste will play a big role in the Northern Plains Food and Farming Conference at the Holiday Inn in Fargo, happening Jan. 24-26, where they'll feature a range of presenters including Barber. She says American habits in food consumption amount to a huge waste of farmers' time, effort and resources. Not only that, she says it's leading to climate troubles — and 3 to 4 percent of carbon in the atmosphere can be blamed on food decomposing in landfills.

Chef Travis Rosenbluth talks with Forum reporter Tracy Briggs about how 40 percent of food is wasted because it's considered ugly. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Chef Travis Rosenbluth talks with Forum reporter Tracy Briggs about how 40 percent of food is wasted because it's considered ugly. Chris Flynn / The Forum
"If people can start to work more consciously with the food they're buying, they'll not only be saving money in their budget, they'll be saving the planet," Kragnes says.

Kragnes says while it's important to look at the big picture about food waste how it harms the earth and our pocketbooks it's also much simpler than that. It's learning to more fully appreciate the flavors of food grown in different parts of the world the way you appreciate the subtle nuances in wine from grapes grown in different parts of the world, but it's also about not taking your food for granted.

"Part of it really is thinking about the taste you're missing out on by wasting food," she says. "We've tried to put together a conference that exemplifies that shift away from production of food to more values about our food, like what is the best taste, what is the best choice to support farmers who focus on soil health or how can I lead the way with my food dollar to support the long term health of the planet?"

Visit npsas.org to learn more about the upcoming conference.

If you go

What: "Wasted! The Story of Food Waste" film screening

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13

Where: The Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway N., Fargo

Info: Admission is free, but attendees are asked to register at Eventbrite