Ugly Produce Has Never Looked So Good

The produce section of your local grocery store offers rows and rows of flawless fruits and vegetables – round apples, pointed carrots, curved bell peppers – each of them unblemished and just the right color. But your grocery store, much like a magazine filled with images Photoshopped to a perceived standard of perfection, presents a distorted reality.

You see, it’s impossible for all produce to meet the beauty standards set forth for them, standards unrelated to whether the fruit or vegetable is edible and delicious. The USDA’s grades and standards for fruits and vegetables define acceptable diameters, lengths, and colors, and any produce that falls outside of these parameters is deemed undesirable and even unsellable by grocery stores.

WastED for a Cause

wastED Logo

In March 2015, Blue Hill, a restaurant in New York City owned by brothers Dan and David Barber, became wastED – for three weeks, anyway. The pop-up event was a collaboration of chefs who offered $15 meals created with ingredients that might have otherwise gone to waste. According to wastED’s website, they’ve served 10,000 dishes using 150 pounds of kale ribs, 30 gallons of beef tallow, 350 pounds of vegetable pulp, and, yes, 600 pounds of ugly vegetables. Chef Dan Barber also helped put together another menu made from landfill ingredients, this time for a UN luncheon, which included salads made from vegetable scraps and a burger made from juice pulps. Eater gave him the 2015 “Actually Doing Something About It” Award for his sustainability and food waste efforts with Blue Hill and wastED.

That’s why, even though cosmetically-challenged fruits and vegetables are equal to their more aesthetically-pleasing counterparts in taste and nutrition, you aren’t likely to see any of that ugly produce lined up at your grocery store. In a 2012 report, the National Resources Defense Council estimates that 40 percent of food in the USA is wasted, including 6 billion pounds of fresh produce. It’s not hard to imagine that our unfair visual judgement of produce contributes to that amount, since the same report details how and why some produce is lost after harvesting: “… [A] cucumber farmer estimated that … 75 percent of the cucumbers culled [for size, color weight, blemish level] before sale are edible … A large tomato-packing house reported that in mid-season it can fill a dump truck with 22,000 pounds of discarded tomatoes every 40 minutes.”

Growing the Status Quo

Shunning edible produce because of its physical shortcomings might be the standard for now, but ugly produce pioneers are launching businesses and organizations to rescue these misshapen fruits and vegetables from an untimely demise. Many involved in the movement see it as a way to end food waste and feed individuals or families that might not otherwise be able to afford healthy food.

Hungry Harvest, a direct-delivery service, has donated 100,000 pounds of its 300,000 pounds of rescued food. When CEO and Co-Founder Evan Lutz recently appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank, he secured a $100,000 investment and generated new buzz about the ugly produce movement. The company currently delivers in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia, and plans to add New York City, Philadelphia, and other east coast cities to its delivery area, a growth indicative of the demand for ugly produce.

On the other side of the country, California-based company Imperfect Produce, which also provides delivery services, has experienced similar popularity after launching last year. According to an update posted on the company’s blog in December 2015, they “have 1,500 active customers and deliver 10,000 pounds of ugly produce each week.” They also teamed up with Raley’s, a California-based grocery chain, to offer their produce there, marketed as “Real Good” produce.

Demanding More from Supermarkets

Food activist Jordan Figueiredo, who created EndFoodWaste.org, launched the Ugly Fruit and Veg Campaign to change the perception of ugly produce. The campaign’s active social media accounts celebrate the amusing shapes produce can take, such as a cucumber that looks like a dove and a potato impersonating a sea lion. In addition to this whimsical approach to activism, Figueiredo started a petition urging Whole Foods and Wal-Mart to sell ugly produce at a discount, which currently has more than 100,000 signatures. Despite this urging and the early success of direct-delivery services, American supermarkets aren’t jumping on board yet.

At least one supermarket in France, however, is cashing in. Intermarché’s campaign in March 2015 brought “inglorious fruits and vegetables” to its shelves, an experiment that proved popular enough for a second round in the fall. Waitrose, a UK retailer, has also tried its hand at marketing ugly produce, and funny-looking fruits and vegetables have even found a home in Canadian supermarkets.

Only time will tell whether ugly produce will find its way into the mainstream fruit and vegetable supply, but the growing political and social concern about ending food waste means the movement isn’t likely to disappear. For now, those lucky enough to live in a Hungry Harvest or Imperfect Produce delivery area can enjoy their own two-legged carrot or curvy zucchini. The rest of us will have to wait.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in English. Passionate about Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, and all things geeky, she spends her free time playing tabletop and video games, collecting beer caps from craft breweries around the country, and celebrating the Cubs' 2016 World Series win. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.

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