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Why I Ate Food Out Of the Garbage For Dinner Last Night

02/16/2015 04:50 EST | Updated 04/18/2015 05:59 EDT

I ate garbage for dinner last night. I ate asparagus taken right out of the garbage. I cooked it and ate it because it was gorgeous and there was nothing wrong with it, except for the fact that it was a bit roughed up.

My story starts with the fact that I'm a huge advocate for the sale and consumption of ugly produce. When I found some deformed but still fresh and pretty heritage carrots the other day at my grocery store, I picked them up for a fraction of the price. Just because something isn't perfect doesn't mean it should end up in the garbage.

Yesterday, I was at a small neighborhood grocery when I saw the owner pushing a cart lined with a composting bag, and full of broccoli, asparagus, and kale. The food was barely blemished; the broccoli had a few tiny yellow florets on it; the kale was a little wilted. I picked up a bunch of thick-speared asparagus and inspected it. It was perfect, except for one single tip that had a small chunk taken out of it. All of these imperfections were nothing different than what happens to your produce during a trip home from the store or after being in your fridge for maybe a day too long. Not 100 per cent perfect, but certainly edible and definitely not ready for the trash. The asparagus pictured below are the ones I ate. They look pretty good, right?

The owner graciously allowed me to pick out the vegetables I wanted and take them home for free. She also let me know that there are both residents and restaurants in the neighborhood that do the same with her rejected produce, so much of what she tosses actually does get eaten. But what happens to the rejected produce from large supermarkets?

I went to the major grocery store that I shop at regularly, and spoke to the head of the produce department about it. He told me that a lot of food gets wasted, but that much of it gets ground up for animal feed and some does get donated to food banks and shelters. The same with food from their meat department and bakery. I asked him about fruits and vegetables that are merely unattractive, not rotten, and he said that at this particular store, there is no call for such a thing. Turns out, people in upper-class Forest Hill want their apples perfect, not deformed. There is one store in the chain that does sell imperfect produce, but it's in a different neighborhood.

Go figure.

In Europe, ugly fruit and vegetables are having a heyday. Sold cheaper than the perfect produce, shoppers can choose to purchase these in many grocery stores. Hell, I sure would!

In the U.S., 35 per cent of all food is thrown away each year.

In Toronto, families throw out 275 kg of food each year, which is equal to one in four of their food purchases.

One of the saddest statistics is that over 30 per cent of fruits and vegetables in North America don't even make it onto the shelves of grocery stores, because they're not pretty enough for consumers.

When we waste food, it's not only the food itself that gets wasted. It's the labor and water used to grow the food, the fuel used to transport it, and the money you spend on it -- if it makes it to your house, that is.

Rob Greenfield, an activist whose campaigns aim to teach us how to make do with less for the good of our planet, rode across the US on a bicycle to promote sustainability and eco-friendly living. On his way, he decided to eat exclusively from dumpsters to call attention to the massive amount of food being wasted. His website account of the experience has mind-blowing pictures of the foods he rescued from the dumpsters of grocery stores, something I can only describe as eye-opening and depressing. He concluded this:

I've learned that I can roll up in nearly any city across America and collect enough food to feed 100's of people in a matter of one night. The only thing that limited me was the size of the vehicle I had to transport it. My experience shows me that grocery store dumpsters are being filled to the brim with perfectly good food every day in nearly every city across America, all while children at school are too hungry to concentrate on their studies.

We as a country are becoming so focused on organic, local, and sustainable, why aren't we taking more of a stand on food wastage in our own cities? When I saw that grocery cart full of beautiful vegetables, what immediately went through my mind was how many hungry people it could feed. Fresh produce, not crappy processed junk that's cheap and easy and all too common for those in lower income brackets. Some of this discarded food is getting to them, but much of it is not. People will always be hungry somewhere, but with the knowledge that up to 68 per cent of kids in at-risk communities go to school hungry each day, food wastage on this scale is unacceptable.

Moving forward, I will tell lower-income clients to ask at grocery stores, even smaller stores, for imperfect foods that will be cheaper and just as healthy and delicious as those on the shelves.

We need to take up the cause of food waste in our own communities, ensuring that we eat what we buy, that we can buy what's not necessarily perfect, and that those in need can access what otherwise would be wasted.

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