I was standing in a lettuce field with some fellow grad students while on a tour a few years ago. The crop wasn't in great shape, but we anticipated a decent harvest. We were shocked to learn that the field had already been harvested! Hundreds of perfectly edible heads lay all around us, left unpicked because they didn't meet stringent appearance standards for consumer acceptance.
California's Food Banks Go Locavore, in Sunday's New York Times describes a solution to this waste that's long overdue. California food banks have been working hard to take advantage of the huge amount of good (but not pretty) food that gets thrown out every year. Sweet potatoes are a good example - it's currently trendy to buy white sweet potatoes in specialty grocery stores, but undersized, lumpy and scarred white sweet potatoes have no use in the food industry because downmarket uses (like potato chips and pie filling) only use the traditional orange-colored sweet potatoes. The small and ugly white sweet potatoes are simply left in the field to rot! Thanks to the people in this article, these rejected sweet potatoes are now collected for local food banks.
One of the neatest things about this story is that a huge role has been played by a bunch of retired executives from major ag businesses like ADM. These guys know the farmers, the processors, and how low peach prices have to fall before (tons of) peaches are unsalable and have to be thrown out. They've coordinated food banks to buy up the perfectly edible "waste" for pennies a pound.
Some food banks have gone so far as to contract with farmers to produce extra food for them. It's incredible how cheap (even produce) can be when artificial appearance standards aren't imposed.