That won't hurt you 

Be kind — give food orphans a home

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I'm standing at the kitchen sink, patiently washing the soft leaves of mixed greens I've just harvested from our garden box: spicy mesclun, parsley, curls of wrinkly blue kale. It's kind of like a meditation, or maybe an act of kindness. Carefully I wash and dry every last leaf, no matter how small, plucking off bits of yellow, or what might be aphids.

I don't mind the time or thought this takes, mainly because I grew this stuff and I know the effort that went into it, both on my part and the plants. Ringing in my head are some of mom's famous last words.

Whenever we screwed up our noses as kids and went "eeeugh!" at the brown on a lettuce leaf or gnarly spots on the beets, she'd say in her delightfully reassuring way, "Oh, that won't hurt you."

Now I want to pipe that saying through loudspeakers in every produce section in the world, and run it every time someone hesitates over a slightly imperfect item.

A slight bruise on a banana? That won't hurt you. A little puncture in the lovely Sunrise apple made by the stem of one of its fellow apples during shipping? That won't hurt you. The rust on a lettuce leaf, little black flecks on your potatoes, holes in the peaches: None of it will hurt you. The flavour and nutrition remain, the texture is fine, and, bonus — weird imperfections, like a twisty green pepper or carrot, are fun to bring home.

Case in point: I was picking over carrots at a farmgate stand not long ago. A young teenager was stocking the shelf when the manager came up from behind and grabbed out two bunches of multi-fingered carrots. Cull them, she told the clerk. Nobody will buy them. But the teen and I both said we'd especially take them home they looked so cool.

That's exactly what Mike Berners-Lee suggests in his book, How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything. He considers those misshapen or slightly injured fruits and veggies orphans, and urges us all to give them a home.

"It's a good idea to buy the most misshapen ones you can get," he writes, "because that encourages the supply chain to not chuck them in the garbage before they ever reach the store."

You're not just keeping carbon out of our beleaguered natural system; you're also helping shrink extraordinary amounts of wasted water, energy, land, labour and capital.

According to the UN Environment Programme, roughly one third of all food produced in the world for human consumption each year gets lost or wasted — some 1.3 billion tonnes. In our drive for some kind of food "perfection", consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).

Some of it's culled right at the farm, some in the distribution system, some at the retail level. In medium- and high-income countries food is wasted and lost mainly at later stages in the supply chain, and much of it — 40 per cent of the total wastage, one study concluded — happens in our own homes.

Wherever the waste occurs, decomposing food produces methane, which is 23 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

None of this is news to Pol Lapeira, one of the founders of the non-profit Freed Food Society in Whistler (see March 12 Pique Newsmagazine). Originally from Barcelona, Pol is a chef, formerly with Olives Community Market, who designs projects that use resources sustainably.

It all started when Pol and his friend, Glen Dawson, went dumpster diving just for fun in Vancouver and found huge amounts of "really good food" being discarded, all of it things we wouldn't think twice about using at home. The bounty included perfectly ripe tomatoes and bananas (stores have to sell things that aren't quite ripe so they'll keep for several days at home), oranges with small blemishes on the peels, and potatoes just starting to sprout.

"We saw that there's a very big issue with food waste and we could do something about it," he says.

"It was like organizing an innovation project around food" — one getting high praise from the community and saving thousands of pounds of produce.

Patrick Henry, another professional chef, joined them, collecting "orphan" food from Creekside Market and The Grocery Store and turning it into something spectacular. They started cooking jams, sauces, ketchups (from all those tomatoes) and pickles. How about some poached strawberries with lemon and thyme or carrot coriander jam? All of it's made to food-safe standards and sold every Wednesday at Whistler's farmers market, 3 to 7 p.m. Remainders go to the food bank.

Meanwhile at Olives, Alex Powell, produce manager and another member of Freed Food Society, laughs about what she sometimes sees there. A non-waste grocery store where staff love chopping away that little black speck and rescuing the food, Olives' in-store deli is a saviour. For instance, ripe bananas we customers refuse to buy are frozen and made into smoothies people rave about.

"What I see is people taking a quick look (in the produce section) and then moving on, because maybe it doesn't look good enough to them," Alex says. "What I find funny is they then go straight to the salad bar, where all that non-perfect produce just got chopped up and put (there). So if you don't want to prepare it and eat it yourself, then you're going to pay a premium at the salad bar."

For farmers, of course, the issues surrounding our socially constructed demand for perfection in food, and more, really hits home.

"In a perfect world where our soil health is great and you've done everything right, it's a perfect product," says Anna Helmer of Helmers' Organic Farm in Pemberton, who's never OK when it's less than perfect produce on offer.

"We have to figure it out and fix it for next year, but next year it will be something else... It's a complicated business when you drill it down to a farm, I think."

It is complicated, but it's a not-perfect world so get over it, people. You try growing these things, especially with the topsy-turvy conditions from climate change! In the meantime, buy those potatoes with little black specks you can easily scrape off with a knife. It's caused by rhizoctonia and hear my delightfully reassuring voice: That won't hurt you.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who is well and truly over it. She happily gives lots of food orphans a home.

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