Why don't we eat crooked cucumbers and knobbly carrots? Because they're hard to find, that's why. Initiatives in Germany and the Czech Republic are encouraging consumers to get more daring with their fruit and veggies.
When it comes to culinary delights, our eyes want to feast too, and that also impacts our shopping habits. When we hit the produce department at the local grocer, we always grab the most appealing specimens. This aesthetic expectation leads to food waste and makes us oblivious to mother nature’s diversity.
"Supermarkets and grocery chains only offer fruit and vegetables that look uniform," explains Anna Strejcová, spokeswoman and co-founder of the Czech initiative Zachraň jídlo (Save the Food). "Retailers claim that consumers won’t buy anything else."
About 20 percent of crops in the Czech Republic, and up to 30 percent in German, are kept from our plates as a result of norms that determine the size, shape and color of fruit and vegetables.
"But since food doesn’t always grow uniformly, it has to be sorted," says Strejcová. And this sorting often happens right on the fields during harvest time.
It wasn’t originally a question of aesthetics that led to this idealization of cucumbers, apples, and the like, but the fact that uniformly shaped produce takes up less space when stored and transported. Retailers developed internal norms, as did the EU with its often-cited "bendy cucumber" directive.
But blaming the latter for produce uniformity does not sit well with Amelie Mertin of the German Querfeld initiative. "What many people don’t know: the EU "bendy cucumber" directive has not been in effect since 2009."
It is a vicious circle. Consumers are conditioned to buy straight cucumbers because supermarkets will not stock anything else, which in turn does not allow customers to become (re)accustomed to different shapes and sizes – or perhaps they don’t even remember they exist.
"We must educate the public. Demand it, buy it." Amelie Mertin urged. She takes this topic very personally. As a business student, she worked at organic farms during semester breaks and was shocked to hear about the amount of food that goes to waste. "Many people don’t even know how much we throw away."
In Germany alone, roughly 18 million tons of groceries are squandered annually, enough to fill 450,000 transport trucks.
Veggies with character
Zachraň jídlo is also fed up with the fact that we place greater value on appearance than taste. A campaign called Jsem připraven – I am ready – aims to put to rest the argument that the customer is not prepared to buy non-standard fruits and vegetables. Almost 10,000 Czech supporters have joined the cause since its inception.
Querfeld is a product of the Berlin start-up scene and designed to appeal to the public at large.
"We’re not trying to 'convert' anybody or wag our finger at consumers, pressuring them to buy our misshapen vegetables," Amelie Mertin explained. "Instead, our campaigns aim to get people excited about our produce."
Communication is key, so the campaign must be hip and fun. They appeal to the public with vegetables with character, like tomatoes with noses and the huge variety of root vegetables.
"When we make it fun, we reach a large audience," says the young woman who started working for Querfeld’s Munich branch in early 2016.
Zachraň jídlo is also playing with the aesthetics of nonconformity. On the Artwall that runs along the bank of Prague’s Vltava River, activists have placed photographs by German artist Uli Westphal that depict oddly-shaped fruits and vegetables, a theme he has been working on since 2006.
Westphal’s exhibition is supposed to show that "misshapen" produce is not only delicious, but also visually unique.
"We are pleased when the consumer thinks it’s cool, but that cannot be the extent of it," Anna Strejcová emphasizes. "That is why we initiated round table discussions and invited farmers, distributers, experts and representatives from the department of agriculture. We want to tell them which concrete steps can be taken to bring otherwise discarded produce to market."
All about quality
Querfeld has already found one solution: They deliver to business clients such as catering companies and cafeterias who do not care about the appearance of the cucumber before they chop it up.
To get to this point, Querfeld had to convince producers and retailers to play along. And that wasn't always easy. Young city-dwellers promoting a start-up was enough to make farmers a little skeptical.
"It was important that our project was not a one-off campaign," Amelie Mertin points out. In the meantime, the relationship between Querfeld and producers has grown strong, although the fledging food saving business can't always take everything off the farmers' hands.
The main priority for both initiatives in Germany and the Czech Republic is to prevent food waste. Regardless of appearance, the quality of the fruit and vegetables must be high.
"It is important to us that the produce be regional and organic," Amelie emphasizes. We do not buy and sell old or moldy produce, just food that is optically irregular."
This reduces food waste, increases profits for farmers, and offers customers an opportunity to get organic produce at great prices.