When life gives you wonky carrots what do you do? Exactly what you'd do with a carrot that fits the exact cosmetic standard imposed by the supermarket chains. Sure, if you're cutting it into precise batons, your geometry skills might need testing, but if you're grating it or turning it into a puree does it matter if said carrot is not precisely 15cm long and 3cm in diameter?
Food waste is a global crisis. Figures from the Department of Environment reveal that Australians waste the equivalent of 312kg of food per person annually, costing the economy an estimated $36.6 billion a year.
If food waste was a country it would be the third biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the United States and China. The United Nations estimates that 17 per cent of global food production is wasted, almost 1 billion tonnes a year.
As individuals we all need to step up and reduce our food waste, but did you know that about a third of wasted food is just left on the farm? Mainly because they don't meet the cosmetic standards set by the large supermarket chains.
While many of the chains sell "odd bunches" for a discounted price, often they come in larger packets.
Which is ironic when you know that the most wasted piece of produce is a single banana.
Joshua Ball and Josh Brooks-Duncan are two Melbourne-based friends who established Farmers Pick in 2020. It's a company that "rescues" mis-shapen produce and sells it directly to the consumer. In three years they've saved more than 1.3 million kilograms of produce.
"One that stands out to me is that we have at least two tonnes of bananas delivered every week, or about 15,000 individual bananas," says Ball.
"They are rejected because they are cut off from the bunch when they are picked so that supermarkets have perfect bunches to sell.
"But these 'singles' are dumped in the field and don't find their way to a home. They are perfect bananas, and you couldn't tell the difference between them and one presented in a bunch. How crazy!"
More than 18,000 consumers are now ordering their subscription boxes of fruit and vegetables. You can customise your box to suit your household, from boxes suitable for singles, to larger families; you can order a combination or just fruit or vegetables. You can even ask for organic produce.
A single box contains six kilograms of produce, with 16-20 varieties, for $36.
A NSW parliamentary report tabled in November 2022 recommended restrictions be put on the major supermarkets to stop farm produce being sent to waste for "minor visual defects".
Speaking at the inquiry, the NSW Farmers Association explained that while retailers had specifications to ensure produce was fit for consumption, they noted "that imposing largely cosmetic specifications, such as product weight, shape, size and imperfections, contributes substantially to food waste in the supply chain".
NSW Farmers also observed that this has an impact on food security and hinders farm businesses that spend resources to grow produce. It also reinforces "unrealistic consumer expectations" of the appearance of fresh fruit and vegetables. While retailers have begun to stock imperfect produce, this is a small proportion of produce sold at the retail level.
The supermarkets are trying to do their bit. They work with producers to use imperfect produce for such things as zucchini noodles, carrot sticks and cauliflower rice, for example. Coles donates unsold, edible food to food rescue organisations like Secondbite and FoodBank, while Woolworths partners with FoodBank, OzHarvest and Fare Share.
While much of the work that needs to be done starts higher up the food chain, Brooks-Duncan says there is still plenty we can do in our own kitchens.
"More and more consumers are educating themselves about the problems the 'cosmetics' of fresh produce create and the implications of this down the food chain," he says.
"What Aussies can do is shift their mindset around what perfect is and go for the wonky or slightly imperfect piece of fruit.
"At home we can get creative, take an imperfectly shaped tomato, for example and transform it into a hearty, pasta dish or soup. It's about 30 per cent cheaper and tastes just the same as one made with a shiny, round tomato.
"The current food waste situation costs households up to $2500 every year and with the cost-of-living crunch, we want to help households gain as much savings as possible."
Do they have a favourite wonky piece of produce?
"For us, everything tastes a bit better when we know that we've helped our farmers and saved perfectly imperfect produce from going to waste," says Ball. "The craziest thing about it is that half of the time, you can barely tell why it has been knocked back. The standards are outrageous.
"We always love checking out the capsicums; the multi-coloured ones are always graded out, even though they look more interesting and are a perfect snack with some hummus. We also get them year-round from different parts of Australia, so you can always rely on them to drop into a tasty stir fry."
This recipe has really simple ingredients but is packed full of flavour. We build recipes based on what is in your box and this one uses potatoes, carrots and garlic. With just a few cheap ingredients, you can make a hearty and satisfying dinner. You can serve this as a side dish, or cook up some green vegetables and you have dinner for two.
1. Preheat oven to 200C.
2. Combine the cream, garlic, thyme and bay leaf in a small saucepan and set over a medium heat. Add a half teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Don't leave cream unattended as it loves to boil over. Once your cream starts to bubble, reduce heat to low and simmer for two minutes. Turn off and set aside.
3. Peel and grate your potatoes and carrots. I used a julienne grater as it looks a bit more fancy but grating is just fine. If you have a grater attachment on your food processor, this will be done in no time.
4. Put your grated potato and carrot into a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, boil for one minute and then strain the potato and carrot thoroughly in a colander.
5. Remove the bay leaf and thyme springs from the cream mixture. Grab a large bowl and add the strained potato and carrots. Pour the cream mixture over the vegetables, sprinkle over half a teaspoon of salt and stir thoroughly.
6. Get a 20cm cake tin or small casserole dish and pour the mixture into the dish. Squash it down so it's nice and flat. Cover tightly with tin foil and pop in the oven for 20 minutes.
7. Remove tin from oven, remove foil, scatter with the grated cheese and return to oven for 20-25 minutes or until the top is crispy and golden. Serve immediately.
This is a great dish to make ahead of time, you can cook it in advance and then reheat in a medium oven, with the tin covered with foil.
If you don't have access to thyme, rosemary can easily be found in public parks or borrowed from friendly neighbours. Use one sprig if using rosemary. Also, the bay leaf is not essential.
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