Is Ugly Fruit Edible: What To Do With Ugly Produce

Is Ugly Fruit Edible: What To Do With Ugly Produce

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “beauty is only skin deep” in one form or another. Well, the same can be said for produce. We’ve been sold a bill of goods regarding our produce. Supermarkets sell only Number 1 grade produce, produce that is perfect in the eyes of the store’s buyer and that we have been brainwashed into believing makes it so. But what about naturally imperfect produce, otherwise known as “ugly” produce?

What is Ugly Produce?

Consumers expect to find unblemished fruit, arrow straight carrots and perfectly round, red tomatoes, but if you’ve ever grown your own produce, you know this idea is laughable. In fact, the whole idea of what produce is deemed ugly is laughable, literally. Many of these so-called “ugly” fruit and veggies are hilarious looking.

Is Ugly Fruit Edible?

Every gardener knows that there is no such thing as perfection in the garden, and I’d venture to say that all of us have grown naturally imperfect produce. The thing is we probably ate it anyway knowing that most ugly produce is perfectly edible. So no worries as to what to do with ugly produce in the garden. Eat it up! Use it in smoothies, puree it, or make it into sauces. The only exceptions would be if the produce is rotting, showing signs of mold or insect damage.

What about the rejected produce from the supermarkets, the grade Number 2 produce? What do they do with the ugly produce? Unfortunately, much of the produce that has been declined by the grocer will end up in a landfill. The USDA (2014) estimated that almost 1/3 of edible and available food in the United States was wasted by retailers and consumers. This amount comes to a staggering 133 billion pounds (60 k.)! And, it often goes right into the landfill – yep, the landfill.

All that may change, though, since a continuing concern for our environment has engendered the ugly produce movement.

What is the Ugly Produce Movement?

France, Canada and Portugal are all countries leading the ugly produce movement. In those countries, some grocers have made a campaign of selling ugly produce at a discounted rate. France has gone even farther by passing legislation barring supermarkets from intentionally spoiling and throwing away food. They are now required to donate unsold foods to charity or as animal feed.

The ugly produce movement didn’t start with action taken by entire countries. No, it was begun by a small number of eco-conscious consumers that began buying imperfect produce. Asking the local grocer to sell them the less-than-perfect fruit and veggies gave some stores an idea. At my local supermarket, for instance, there is a section of produce that is not perfect but is definitely for sale, and at a reduced price.

While the ugly produce movement is building momentum, it’s still rather slow going for most of the United States. We need to take a page from European shoppers. Great Britain, for example, has conducted a “Love Food, Hate Waste” campaign since 2007 and the EU, in general, has pledged to cut its food waste by half within the next decade.

We can do better. While the local supermarket may not be interested in selling second grade produce due to liability, a local farmer might. Start your own movement by asking at the local farmers market. They may be only too happy to sell you their less-than-perfect produce.

Ugly fruits and vegetables: why you have to learn to love them

A cohort of US delivery services want to change the way we view, cook and eat ‘imperfect’ produce that grocery stores regularly banish

My funny lemon time: can we learn to love less-than-perfect produce? Photograph: Imperfect Produce

My funny lemon time: can we learn to love less-than-perfect produce? Photograph: Imperfect Produce

Last modified on Sat 18 Aug 2018 11.34 BST

K ing-sized kiwis, curvy squash and smaller-than-usual apples and limes. That was the “ugly” produce count in boxes of fruits and vegetables Deborah Levine recently received at her home in the San Francisco Bay Area. While most of the produce she gets in her biweekly deliveries is “very normal”, she recalls one particular veggie. It was like a siamese carrot, but with part of it broken off, it looked like it “didn’t have its leg”.

“It was kind of funky looking. But you clean it, peel it and chop it up and it makes no difference,” says Levine, who works as an editor. “But you’d never see that in the market.”

Since August, Levine has been getting deliveries of imperfect or “ugly” fruits and vegetables, those that taste fine but are often banished from grocery stores because they don’t meet industry’s cosmetic standards. It arrives at her doorstep courtesy of Imperfect Produce, one of a handful of food delivery services that’s cropped up in recent years as part of an emerging movement to make acceptable and sell discarded produce at more affordable prices.

It’s one way to fight back against the massive amounts of food wasted in the United States.

“When you look at our food system farm to fork, a stunning 52% of all produce in the US goes uneaten,” says JoAnne Berkenkamp, a senior advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Burgeoning awareness of this reality has led a growing number of eaters and businesses to take a second look at product that doesn’t meet prevailing industry standards for size, shape, color and other cosmetic attributes.”

What’s wrong with this tomato? Photograph: Imperfect Produce

Besides Imperfect Produce, other such delivery services include Hungry Harvest, which delivers “recovered” produce in Baltimore, Washington DC, Philadelphia and surrounding areas, and Perfectly Imperfect, which serves the Cleveland area. Even Fresh Direct now has an ugly vegetable box.

Imperfect Produce, which delivers to the Bay Area, started in August 2015 and says its produce costs up to 50% less than retail store prices since they’re fruits and vegetables that usually go to waste on farms. Ron Clark, the company’s co-founder and chief supply officer, estimates about 20% of produce overall doesn’t make it to the market because of cosmetic reasons. But the demand is there. Imperfect Produce began with 150 deliveries, he says, and now has over 10,000 customers.

“It’s a new market niche that will continue to grow,” says Clark. “It’s in the public eye, it’s captured people’s imagination and, most of all, there’s a brand new giant generation out there, the millennials, that deeply care about these issues . climate change, food waste, properly using all of our resources, being stewards of the planet.”

Clever and lighthearted marketing also doesn’t hurt. Hungry Harvest recently released ugly produce emojis. And Levine once received googly eyes in her Imperfect Produce box with encouragement to share a photo of the eyes on ugly produce for a discount off her next order. After much searching, she picked a not-so-ugly onion for the Instagram shot.

Food activist Jordan Figueiredo, who’s been petitioning large grocers like Whole Foods, Walmart and Target to stock imperfect produce, plays up the produce’s “personalities” on social media. Part of his Ugly Fruit and Veg Campaign, these daily doses of “ugly fun” feature such produce as intertwined carrots with the caption “Ah, young carrot love” and a tomato with a seemingly long nose, coined “Cyrano de Tomato” by one commentator.

Pepper with nose: delicious. Photograph: Imperfect Produce

“Ugly produce just resonates with people,” says Figueiredo, who also gets Imperfect Produce deliveries. “A lot of people in this movement have capitalized on making it fun and not some sort of drudgery of environmental tasks . It’s not just intuitive to want to do everything you can to prevent waste and help the planet and all that. Unfortunately it’s just not as easy as we’d like it to be.”

Beyond waste concerns, thanks to imperfect produce’s cheaper cost, some hope this trend will also help provide the more than 48 million Americans who struggle with hunger greater access to fresh food. This was part of the motivation behind the launch in May of Perfectly Imperfect by produce wholesaler Forest City Weingart. Perfectly Imperfect offers boxes of imperfect produce at discounted rates for pick up or delivery in and around Cleveland.

“We couldn’t help but notice that the neighborhood surrounding our warehouse was an area in need and considered a food desert, and really just wanted to try to connect the few dots and figure out a way to disperse some of this food to some of the people who can afford to buy food for themselves but just need things that are as affordable as possible,” says Ashley Weingart, director of communications and community outreach for the company.

Forest City Weingart is in Central, a neighborhood in Cleveland that Weingart says is one of the lowest income areas in Ohio. From 2010 to 2014 its median household income was $9,647, compared to $26,179 for Cleveland, and almost 70% of households received food stamps, according to the Center for Community Solutions.

But Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, says while these types of services may be a reasonable short-term measure, solving hunger requires structural and sustainable solutions.

An orange with spots. Photograph: Imperfect Produce

“Food insecurity is the result of lack of resources – money to buy food, access to food sources, ability and time to cook, adequate transportation, the cost of food and other such factors. It is not about the appearance of fruits and vegetables. If these are cheaper, poor people might be more willing to buy them, but they would need to want to, like them and know how to cook them, all of which are cultural issues,” she says.

Weingart admits “the biggest challenge we face is informing the people who need it the most”. That’s why they’re working with partners in the city to get this produce delivered to community and recreation centers. Weingart says they’re also developing a bag of produce that would cost less than $10, since it’s easier to transport and cheaper.

The financial savings haven’t been huge for Levine, in the Bay Area, she thinks possibly due to Imperfect Produce’s delivery charges. She spends about $25 every two weeks. But she plans to stick with it. She’s happy with the produce and says the variety has expanded her cooking repertoire. Mostly, though, it makes her feel a little more proactive.

“I can’t change the economy, I can’t get rid of poverty,” she says. “It’s shameful in a country that has . so many people who don’t have enough food to be wasting food. And truly gargantuan amounts of food. When you know that you want to do something about it and you get the opportunity to do that, I’d take it.”

Why the Business of Ugly Produce Is So Complicated

Imperfect produce start-ups are alleviating landfills while putting more money in farmers' pockets. But what's the long-term impact for food banks, which so often rely on "rejected" fruits and vegetables?

Ten years ago, cosmetically imperfect produce was not yet cool. Suggestively shaped eggplants didn’t have their own Instagram accounts, and their salvage hadn’t yet become a calling card for sustainability. More significantly, the commercial potential of this “unmarketable” produce had not yet been tapped by food delivery startups like Imperfect, Imperfectly Perfect, Hungry Harvest, and 412 Food Rescue, all appealing to environmentally-minded millennials. But this burgeoning subset and its larger trend of social enterprise companies may have long-term implications of gobbling up the produce supply that food banks so desperately rely on, says L.A. Kitchen president Robert Egger. And it’s already happening.

“Farmers used to be like, ‘Hey man, I can’t sell this, so I’m going to give this to the food bank.’ That’s happening less and less,” he says. “The market forces are driving food waste towards reinvestment and profitability versus down towards charity. What will happen in three years, six years, or nine years demands a vigorous re-examination of our food system.”

During Egger’s three-plus decades as an industry activist, he’s seen a lot of change. For the past six years as founder and president of L.A. Kitchen, his non-profit has utilized imperfect produce—thanks in part to the Imperfect, which donates two to three thousand pounds of fruits and vegetables a week—to cook meals for senior homes, after-school programs, and homeless health programs. In the process, it provides culinary job training to men and women coming out of foster care and incarceration.

Before this, Egger was president of D.C. Central Kitchen for the past 24 years, partnering with the Obamas—who volunteered there twice—and more extensively, activist chef José Andrés, who most recently worked with L.A. Kitchen to feed Southern California wildfire victims. (He also serves on the board of Andrés’s much publicized non-profit, World Central Kitchen, which served over 3 million meals in Puerto Rico.) Now, Egger is turning his attention toward food waste: a $165 billion dollar annual problem in the United States. But farmers, grocery stores, and restaurants haven’t been sitting idly by as they lose profits to it. One farmer’s response, for example, was the creation of baby carrots. In the 1980s, California farmer Mike Yurosek was tired of throwing out 70% of his misshapen fully grown carrots, and decided to sand them smooth and rebrand them instead. They were a hit. Later, Bolthouse Farms took this a step further by making carrot juice from the resulting scraps, Egger says.

Retailers, too, have gotten creative with reject fruits and vegetables. Bargain bin chains like Grocery Outlet have been sourcing imperfect produce since 1946 and selling it at 40% to 70% under conventional grocery store cost. But when all is said and done, a fifth of all fruits and vegetables in North America end up in the landfill because of purely cosmetic reasons, according to a 2011 United Nations report. On a global scale, this TED talk estimates the figure is as high as a third. And the fact remains that over half of all fruits and vegetables grown in North America are never eaten, according to the aforementioned UN report.

Even though there’s more of this rejected produce than we know what to do with—hence the need for startups like Imperfect—the fact remains that despite its abundance, it can be really expensive to even get it off the farm where it’s needed. Some of it goes to animal feed companies increasingly, some of it goes to pre-cut produce products, which cut the black spot off a butternut squash, chop it up, and turn it into $5.99 packaged butternut squash chunks.

And, starting in the late aughts, more of it began to go to food banks. This was in response to mounting national public pressure to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables, Egger explains.

“In 2007 Gary Maxworthy started Farm to Family, now run by the California Association of Food Banks,” he says. “This was one of the first excess farm product programs. At first it was free… now much is purchased. Across the country, hundreds of entrepreneurs have realized there’s this source of fresh affordable produce that they can sell to millions of young consumers.”

He continues, “Everybody’s so excited about the environmental aspect, but sadly what the unintended consequences in the future is that when food banks and pantries are pressed harder due to an aging population, that food that used to be donated will be at a premium,” Egger says. “After all, all donated food is lost profits.”

And as it turns out, food banks all over the country find themselves dependent on the very agricultural inefficiencies they’re invested in eradicating. And if our goal is truly to have 0% waste, what will happen when one day we achieve it? As of 2014, there were 46 million food insecure people who relied on food banks. While they might seem dwarfed by the sheer amount of discarded and donatable produce—three billion pounds annually in California alone, according to Imperfect’s website—the fact is that aid-reliant populations are increasing, and produce waste is decreasing.

“Food banks can barely meet the need for an estimated 45 million people who are at risk of hunger,” Egger says, “and here come 70 million baby boomers of whom a significant portion have nothing besides social security, but who will live five or ten years longer than their parents.”

Does that mean that companies like Imperfect shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing? That’s not what Egger is saying. In addition to donating food to L.A. Kitchen, Imperfect supports several of the organization’s initiatives. “They’re great partners for us,” he says. “And I don’t want this to be perceived in the wrong way.”

He’s more thinking about the implications of the burgeoning group of social enterprise companies—of which imperfect produce delivery is just one part. “What I think you’re going to start seeing is salsa companies or ketchup companies that say, ‘We used to make salsa with grade A tomatoes. Why on earth would we do that when we can make it with grade B tomatoes and call it save the Save the Earth salsa?’” he says. “What you’re seeing is industries becoming more aware that food waste cuts into an already very minimal bottom line." All this said and done, what sustainable fruit and vegetable sources should food banks look towards?

Egger is wary of depending on corporate donations. He cites Andrew Fisher’s book Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups. In one of the myriad ironies of the “industrial hunger complex,” the very titans that donate so much to food pantries are often the ones whose underpaid workers are forced to rely on food aid like SNAP benefits, formerly called food stamps.

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As for the crooked carrot, oddly shaped orange and double-capped mushroom, they will most likely go to waste.

Imperfect, a new produce delivery service coming to Chicago, hopes to change that.

“One in five fruits and vegetables go to waste at the farm level. According to Feeding America that results in 6 billion pounds of food waste each year,” said Ben Simon, CEO of Imperfect. “Our big vision with the company is to recover as much food as we possibly can.”

Since it was launched in August 2015, Imperfect says it has recovered 8.5 million pounds of produce. “We hear from farmers all the time that this is money they were just leaving on the table, or product they would have at worst-case scenario put in a dumpster,” said Imperfect Chief Marketing Officer Aleks Strub. “We throw away 20 percent of produce in the U.S. because it doesn’t look right and we think that’s crazy.”

Simon’s mission to reduce food waste started with his friends. “I got my start in food waste by recovering my friends’ half-eaten sandwiches. I grew up in a household where we didn’t waste anything, and in high school and college I saw a lot of my friends would just buy a sandwich, eat half of it and would be ready to throw it out because they didn’t love it,” Simon said. “So, I was like, ‘Oh, can I eat that?’ It was free food and I thought about reducing food waste.”

He expanded his efforts while attending the University of Maryland, where he saw food being wasted in campus dining halls. Around the same time, he was researching food waste in class and discovered that 40 percent of food goes to waste. “We saw that locally in the campus cafeteria,” he said.

Compelled to do something, he approached dining services about donating the food rather than throwing it out. His initiative led to the founding of the Food Recovery Network, a nonprofit that works to eliminate food waste on college campuses.

“I organically got involved with fighting food waste locally, and we scaled that to be at 230 colleges across the country and built it into a national movement,” Simon said. “Through [FRN] I learned about food that was wasted on farms and that’s what led to the start of Imperfect.”

‘Ugly on the outside, tasty on the inside’

“They’re just as nutritious and have a shelf life just as long as the ones you buy in stores,” said Ben Simon, CEO of Imperfect. (Colette Krey / Imperfect)

Imperfect buys from farmers “ugly” fruits and vegetables that don’t meet grocery stores’ cosmetic standards and delivers them to customers’ homes at prices 30 to 50 percent below grocery store rates.

“We’re sourcing food from farms that in most cases otherwise go to waste because they are cosmetically challenged and that can range from something you barely notice – for example, a little bit of scarring or slight discoloration – to a bell pepper that’s misshapen in such a small way that it will not stand on its own,” Simon said.

“They’re just as nutritious and have a shelf life just as long as the ones you buy in stores. We don’t buy bruised produce. . Everything with Imperfect is external appearances: Ugly on the outside, tasty on the inside.”

Starting in December, Chicago-area residents can get a taste of “ugly” produce as Imperfect opens in Northlake.

This will be company’s first location outside of the West Coast. “Chicago is naturally the food center of the country. It has such a deep food culture,” said Strub, who grew up in suburban Lisle.

“We’re always looking to make a bigger impact on food waste and make food accessible to more people. Chicago is one of the biggest metro areas in the U.S. and it’s long been a hub for food and culture,” Simon said. “People turn to Chicago to see where the food world is going. Expanding to Chicago was a natural move for these reasons.”

Imperfect founders Ron Clark (left to right), Ben Simon and Ben Chesler. (Colette Krey / Imperfect)

Customers can choose from four different box types that range in size from small to extra-large: organic, mixed fruits and vegetables, all fruit and all vegetables. The most popular among customers is the medium-sized mixed fruits and vegetables box (which costs $22-$24 for 11-13 pounds of food), according to Simon.

By default, boxes are typically balanced between the number of fruits and vegetables, but “that’s only the starting point,” he said. Each order is fully customizable. “You can sub out and add other items from the full array of 40 items we have each week.”

Imperfect will initially launch in the downtown area, but can deliver as far north as Lake Forest, as far west as parts of Naperville and as far south as Hyde Park. All deliveries are made by Imperfect employees. While customers are assigned a delivery day based on where they live, they can choose from three different delivery windows: 3-8 p.m., 6-10 p.m. and 3-10 p.m.

Through Imperfect, Simon hopes to raise awareness about food waste and its impact.

“Food waste is a really important issue and isn’t covered enough,” Simon said. “I don’t think everyone realizes how many resources go into growing our own food.”

Americans spend more than $200 billion growing, transporting and processing more than 60 million tons of food that ends up going to waste, according to the National Resources Defense Council.

“Almost half of the food in the country goes to waste and it’s an absolute atrocity,” he said. “The silver lining is it’s a solvable issue.”

Related stories:

Nov. 9: A tech billionaire with a famous name talks about bringing his “real food” movement to the Windy City.

Oct. 2: Chicago could become the first U.S. city outside of California to adopt a policy requiring it to purchase food from sources that meet a set of health, environmental and fair labor standards.

Sept. 18: Research shows that hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans live in food deserts. According to a 2006 report, most of those in Chicago were made up entirely of African-American residents.

Give Love to Ugly Produce

In recent years, an international movement to embrace “ugly” produce has started to take root. The idea is simple – by using the edible, but slightly less beautiful fruits and vegetables that are often discarded or never even harvested, we can decrease food waste and feed more people. Some of the United Kingdom’s biggest supermarkets have embraced this concept. Here in the United States, while some charities and food banks have been doing this kind of work for years, many American businesses are just starting to consider the problem and potential of ugly produce.

Irregular produce is wasted at all levels of the food system, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Pickers are often trained not to pick fruit that isn’t up to quality standards in terms of shape, size, color, and time to ripeness. If it is picked, it might get “culled,” or pulled out for not meeting those same standards. Some of this rejected food is sent for processing or to feed animals—if it doesn’t spoil first—but a strangely shaped vegetable, like a bent cucumber, might not meet the processors’ standards either. Finally, we consumers tend to choose the best-looking produce at grocery stores and leave behind the not-so-perfect ones. All of this picking and choosing is a major factor in the 40% rate of food waste in this country.

In the U.K., Waitrose and Tesco were two of the first large chains in the U.K. to embrace ugly produce. Since the EU relaxed strict rules on produce appearance in 2008, it has become even easier for stores to carry produce with cosmetic imperfections. Last year, Sainbury’s, another large chain of supermarkets, began to sell and promote ugly fruits and vegetables, standing by their commitment to take 100% British crops when a season of unpredictable weather created a bumper crop of ugly produce. In the U.K., 20-40 percent of produce is rejected because it’s misshapen, according to the Soil Association, so there is still work to do, but influential stores like Waitrose, Tesco, and Sainsbury’s will make a huge difference in public perception.

One of the most interesting pro-ugly-produce campaigns in Europe is Ugly Fruits. Started by German students, Ugly Fruits argues that selling imperfect produce isn’t just about sustainability, it’s a business opportunity to use that huge amount of wasted food to make a profit. The campaign uses beautiful photos of quirky produce to urge consumers to choose more misshapen food, but also wants to encourage stores to carry more of the wonky fruits and vegetables so people get used to seeing it. After meeting with some resistance from grocery stores, the group has floated the idea of trendy Ugly Fruits supermarkets, where unusual looking produce would be featured and promoted to the public.

Here in the U.S., some entrepreneurs look at our embarrassing rate of food waste domestically and also see a business opportunity. One such entrepreneur is Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s. His latest venture is Daily Table, a new market whose first location will be opening next year in Dorchester, Mass. The market will be a supermarket-restaurant hybrid, strategically placed in under-served areas to provide high-value nutrition at reasonable prices. The food will be made from ingredients that have traditionally been wasted, like blemished or otherwise imperfect produce and items that are only one day past their due date, and therefore perfectly edible. Rauch’s goal is for prices at Daily Table to compete with those of fast food.

At a panel on the topic of food waste earlier this month at SXSW Eco, Rauch, who has considerable experience selling produce at the retail level, pointed out that the only times consumers are used to seeing—and paying for—ugly produce is at the farmers market or when it’s labeled “heirloom.” So maybe putting it up for sale next to the perfect-looking fruit at the supermarket isn’t the answer. When asked on NPR how he will handle the PR difficulties of marketing food that is imperfect or past due, Rauch said,

“I think that the issue here is really how you talk about it and how you educate.

For instance, food banks for years. I might say, without naming the names, one of the leading, best regarded brands in the large, national, food industry — they basically recover the food within their stores, cook it up and put it out on their hot trays the next day. That’s the stuff that we’re going to be talking about. We’re talking about taking and recovering food.”

Other American businesses are making an effort to utilize ugly produce that might otherwise be wasted. Greenling, a local food grocery delivery service in Texas, sells “seconds” that have slight physical defects. Grocery Outlet, a growing franchise of discount stores in the West, sells closeouts and overruns, including produce. The grocery delivery service Fresh Direct gives their produce a rating from one to five stars, so customers can choose from five-star perfection down to one-star inconsistency in their produce. Freezing fresh produce with slight imperfections is another way some small businesses are making use of the entire harvest. A blemished tomato can still make excellent frozen tomato paste.

Many factors contribute to food waste, but chief among them is the fact that we tend to “shop with our eyes,” so imperfect produce is rejected both at the wholesale, retail and consumer levels merely because of the way it looks. This results in huge amounts of food wasted that could otherwise be used to feed people. It also results in the waste of resources like water and oil that went into the growth and production of that food. The NRDC offers these tips for doing your part to decrease food waste.

We believe that with focused and concerted efforts, we can simultaneously increase food production and decrease food waste to fight food insecurity and create a more sustainable America into the future. One way to do this is to find new ways to keep ugly produce in the food system. What can you do? Next time you see a wonky tomato or two-legged carrot, give it a second look—and maybe even a little space in your grocery cart.

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