Embracing Ugly Food


As “eco-friendly”, and “green” as I thought I was, I didn’t actually learn to truly respect food until about this time last year, when I started volunteering at my local food pantry at Friends In Deed (which I’ll likely do again for the 5 weeks I’ll be back in LA next month).

At the pantry, we received a lot of ugly food. Food that’d been battered and smashed, food that hadn’t made it to the store shelves in time, food that sat on the shelves a little too long. There wasn’t a week that would go by without at least a truck or two delivering entire bushel boxes’ worth of quickly spoiling produce, and it was up to us volunteers working in the back to make sure that as much of it as possible wound up in the hands of the poor and hungry who were lined up outside.

If I’m honest, I have to say that my time there was so memorable and fun thanks, in no small part, to the other volunteers, who were often almost as poor as those lining up outside. I’d take those women’s company over a monied, “eco-minded” blogger any day. They were bringing their lived experience to their work there, and it was amazing just to be around them. One of the women would tell us about what it was like to grow up poor in Mexico, and how, even when her family had barely anything to eat, if there were bugs in the rice, then there’d be no rice. (We heard this story during a period of a few months where we were getting regular deliveries of 50-pound bags of jasmine rice that we would painstakingly comb through, looking for bugs. Most of them had bugs.) Or, in another favorite moment of mine, how another woman, when faced with bushels upon bushels of moldy sweet potatoes, grabbed a knife, and just started hacking off the moldy parts since most of each potato was still perfectly edible.

So it wasn’t until there that I really saw the potential, the beauty, and the life that was still present in ugly, unsalable food. I learned to get over my superficial squeamishness; learned to artfully ignore expiration dates; and when I started taking home some of the produce we’d worked so hard to process, learned to cook with the ugly food and appreciate it in just the same way as the people lining up outside.

See, ugly food forces you to be resourceful. It forces you to respect the food on its own terms. If its moldy, eat around the mold. If it’s squished, prepare it differently than you otherwise would. If it’s spoiling quickly, enjoy it now. 

This is how much of the world still eats, and how the whole world ate up until about 100 years ago. You didn’t just throw out a head of cauliflower because it looked weird, and ran off to the store to replace it with a shiny new one. In fact, you probably wouldn’t have let the cauliflower get that far to begin with. Food was precious. It still is.

For now, I’m bartering with some of our neighbors, and this is what most of the produce I get looks like: I give them homemade vegan cheese, they give us entire grocery bags of organic produce. Our neighbor actually gets paid in grocery store seconds from a tutoring job she does, and some of it is too far gone for them to even get to in time. So off to us it comes.

And while I’m definitely not perfect, and while some of it still winds up going bad before I can use it, I still use as much of it as I can, because that’s how you respect your food. That’s what we do in exchange for what it does for us.