Beauty is in the eye of the pea-holder: F-M group embraces ugly food to reduce food waste

MOORHEAD - Crooked cucumbers, triplet carrots and what appears to be Frankenstein's rutabaga, a softball-sized vegetable with twisted outgrowths and sprouts of hair, sit on a table in the driveway of Woodchuck Community Farm.
Christian Schultz and Kayla Pridmore display some of the produce that will be sold by the Woodchuck Farm at the Ugly Food Market this weekend. David Samson / The Forum

MOORHEAD – Crooked cucumbers, triplet carrots and what appears to be Frankenstein's rutabaga, a softball-sized vegetable with twisted outgrowths and sprouts of hair, sit on a table in the driveway of Woodchuck Community Farm.

"We're living proof that none of these vegetables will harm you," said 26-year-old Christian Schultz, who runs the farm with 24-year-old Kayla Pridmore. "We eat all this because we can't turn it into money."

Consumers don't like to buy ugly vegetables. After three years of selling their produce, Schultz and Pridmore know that, and they no longer bring funny-shaped specimens to the market.

But a new local group aims to champion the unloved crops, not only because they taste fine but also because consuming "ugly food," organizers say, could reduce food waste.

First, though, what is ugly food?

"Ugly food is all the foods that are perfectly acceptable to eat, but they don't make it to farmers markets, grocery stores or other food retail outlets because they don't meet aesthetic guidelines," said Megan Myrdal, 29, a co-organizer of Ugly Food People of the North, which is kicking off with an ugly food market Saturday and potluck Tuesday.

The filtering happens at an institutional level: Supermarkets stock shippable fruits and vegetables with high USDA grades, a measurement that rewards uniform size and shape. But Myrdal said the rejection more often comes from buyers.

"If you're ever at the store, you see people poring over which apple to pick, based on some arbitrary color difference, and they all taste the same," said co-organizer Simone Wai, 24. "And that apple gets rejected six different times and all of a sudden, it's bad."

The six-person group, which plans to expand, sees that as a problem for a number of reasons.

The National Resources Defense Council estimates that 40 percent of our food is wasted in the U.S., where nearly 50 million people were in food-insecure households in 2013, Myrdal said.

"We have this abundance of food, we're wasting 40 percent of it, and there are people in this country that are hungry and not getting the foods that they need," she said.

From an environmental perspective, mounds of rotting food waste also emit greenhouse gases.

Schultz and Pridmore avoid food waste by eating or canning most of their unsellable produce. What they don't turn into relish or salsa they market on Facebook, and they recently unloaded 20 pounds of imperfect tomatoes that way.

"But it would be such a risk to bring those to the farmers market, because we have only so much real estate on our table and in our van," said Pridmore, who represents the fourth generation of her family to live on the farm.

There are movements promoting ugly food worldwide, from the Bay Area to the United Kingdom, where chef Jamie Oliver has adopted the tagline, "Beautiful on the Inside."

Myrdal said the local group hopes to use upcoming events to create awareness, as well as teach action steps. For example: Take home leftovers, serve smaller portions and understand that produce can be useful long after peak ripeness. Consider bananas.

"Once they become too ripe and really brown and ugly-looking, they're the best bananas for banana bread," said co-organizer Jodi Regan, 26. "So it's really making your mindset reflect that for other foods as well."

Ugly Food People of the North will hold a special Red River Market featuring ugly food from vendors such as Woodchuck Community Farm from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the corner of Second Avenue North and Broadway in downtown Fargo.

The group is also holding a potluck from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Drekker Brewing Company, 630 1st Ave. N. in Fargo, where prizes will be awarded to the best-tasting and ugliest food. If you don't bring a dish, a $5 donation is suggested.