A crooked cucumber will never make its way to the supermarket – the Querfeld initiative and Zachraň jídlo want to change that.

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. Retailers claim that consumers won’t buy anything else,” explains Anna Strejcová, spokeswoman and co-founder of the Czech initiative Zachraň jídlo (Save the Food).

About 20 percent of crops in the Czech Republic (and up to 30 percent in Germany) never make it to our plates – all because of norms that determine size, shape and color of fruits 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.

Consumers are still conditioned to buy straight cucumbers. Supermarkets will not stock anything else. Photo: Kreativagentur LAUTHALS

Originally, it wasn’t a question of aesthetics that led to this idealization of cucumbers, apples, and the like: 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; supermarkets will not stock anything else, which does not allow customers to (re)accustom themselves 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 suggests. 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 is going 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.

Tomatoes with noses have character

Zachraň jídlo is also fed up with the fact that we place greater value on appearance than on taste. A campaign called Jsem připraven – I am ready – aims to put the argument to rest 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. Instead, our campaigns aim to get people excited about our produce,” Amelie Mertin explains. Communication is key, so the campaign must be hip and fun. They appeal to the public with vegetables that have ‘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. “Fruits and vegetables have become designer products. We judge our food based on an idealized expectation of appearance. If the look deviates, we become skeptical.”

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. Zachraň jídlo wants to change the entire production chain. “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.

It’s 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 that point, Querfeld first had to convince producers and retailers to play along. Young city-dwellers promoting a start-up – that 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. But the farmers still have to be patient with Querfeld sometimes: “We currently cannot take all the produce they make available,” laments the activist. In the end, it also hurts the farmer to throw away produce and lose out on potential profits.

The main priority for both initiatives in Germany and the Czech Republic is to prevent food waste. Regardless of appearance, the quality of the fruits 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.