How do you buy fruits and vegetables?
If you’re like most Americans, you visit the produce department at a supermarket that’s well-stocked with bright, uniformly sized food.
With few differences from one item to another, how do you decide which apple, cabbage or eggplant or to take home?
With your eyes, of course. Maybe by touching or smelling, but never by tasting.
To Neal Brooks of Phoenix-based Abby Lee Farms, the standard practice of selecting fruits and vegetables based on how they look, and not how they taste, is obscene.
“I ask people, ‘When you’re buying art, do you lick it?” said the longtime farmer who sells his crops at farmers markets and to top local restaurants and grocers.
Eight in 10 Americans said the look of fresh produce is at least somewhat important when they decide what to buy, according to an August 2016 Harris Poll. Appearance was more important than whether it was local or organic, the survey found.
Holding produce to strict beauty standards leads to food waste. Sure, some of the rejects are used for juice, baby food and other processed foods.
But “ugly” fruits and vegetables are often unharvested and left to rot in the field. If they make it past the production stage of the supply chain, they’re culled by inspectors or refused by retailers. In the off chance that a wonky watermelon or a curvy carrot makes it into the store, it’s more likely to perish in a bin than be taken home.
There’s a growing number of people, from grassroots activists to national grocery-chain managers, who are working to change that. Using awareness campaigns, creative business sense and donation programs, these food-waste warriors are finding ways to transform ugly but edible food into just food.
How do you know when fruit is ugly?
Sometimes, it’s obvious when a fruit or vegetable doesn’t make the cosmetic cut.
A plum that has a weird growth on one side. A cucumber that looks like it has two legs. A tomato with a protruding nose.
Other times the defects are less obvious.
It can be a carrot that’s fractions of an inch smaller than the others in the bunch. It can be a melon with a sunburn. Or an apple that was scarred by a limb while it grew.
Grade standards for fruits and vegetables start with the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. You’ve heard of USDA Prime beef. For (most) fruits and vegetables, the labels are No.1 or No. 2.
USDA grades act as guidelines across the industry. They’re a common language used to assess product quality when a grower is trying to sell to a buyer, and so on down the supply chain. While they are not requirements, they act as a framework for the system. And they’re just the start: Most retailers have their own secretive quality standards on top of those set by the USDA.
The downside of the system is that there’s no middle ground, food-waste opponents say. There may be No. 1 and No. 2 grades, but hardly anyone is stocking No. 2 in the produce aisle. Perfectly edible food that’s not perfect-looking is discarded in favor of prettier produce.
Fruit and vegetables have the highest waste rate of any food group, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Some of that loss is based solely on whether the food conforms to rigid size and cosmetic standards.
“If something is rotten, throw it way, sure,” Brooks said. “But not if I have beautiful tomatoes that are 6 ounces and you want 8 ounces. God doesn’t know that.”
“Ugly” food advocates say the standards set by the USDA and individual retailers are draconian. They say if the rules were relaxed, Americans would accept odd-looking produce, especially if it were sold at a discount. That would go a long way in helping people eat a more nutritious diet while reducing America’s $165 billion food-waste problem.
The Harris Poll supports that claim. More than 60 percent of Americans would be comfortable eating misshapen produce, the survey found. However, 76 percent would expect to pay less for “ugly” fruits and veggies.
Advocates for “ugly” produce
1. Jordan Figueiredo
In his spare time from his public agency job in northern California, Figueiredo runs the Ugly Fruit and Veg Campaign. Since 2014, he’s been a driving force behind the movement to save “ugly” food. One reason he’s had such an impact is that he’s funny.
Through the Ugly Fruit and Veg Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts, he posts photos of bizarre fruits and vegetables that look like humans or animals.
There’s a sweet potato with so many knots that it looks like Sloth from “Goonies.” Two interlocked carrots are “getting fresh.” An eggplant looks like it’s giving a thumbs up. A butternut squash with a rude-looking crack makes using “butt” in the comments section a sport.
Environmental efforts are a little depressing for people … the fun aspect makes people connect,” Figueiredo said.
That connection has led to serious change. In summer 2015, Figueiredo launched the first in a series of petitions to lobby titans of grocery to give ugly fruit and vegetables a place in their produce departments.
He asked Walmart and Whole Foods “#WhatTheFork are you doing with your produce?” The online petition got more than 111,000 signatures to Whole Foods and 162,000 to Walmart via Change.org. He met with store executives and both retailers started selling “uglies” in 2016 at select stores around the country. He also sent a petition to Target and is working on one to Albertson’s.
Figueiredo is still not satisfied. He’s heard “bogus” reasons from supermarkets, such as supply is an issue. He thinks some chains might be afraid they’d lose money by offering discounts on “uglies” since the produce department traditionally has a high profit margin.
None of the major U.S. retailers has committed fully, Figueiredo said. Mid-level chains have made progress. He’s especially supportive of Midwestern supermarket Hy-Vee, which sells Produce Misfits products at its more than 240 stores.
You can find an index of grocers that sell “ugly” at Figueiredo’s website endfoodwaste.org.
“There are so many people that are hungry and malnourished,” he said. “Farmers have a really tough job as it is, and supermarkets make it harder by rejecting so much.”
2. Imperfect Produce
The most striking thing about the fruits and vegetables at Imperfect Produce’s northern California warehouse is that they’re not ugly at all.
Sure, there are a few blemished oranges, but most of the offenders are just too big or too small. There are wee lemons and colossal apples. Brussels sprouts are the size of a fist and grapefruits are a tad on the tiny side.
The San Francisco company buys “ugly” fruits and vegetables at reduced prices from farmers. It turns around and sells that food to customers at a discount of 25 to 50 percent off grocery-store prices.
Members subscribe to produce boxes based on how much they want and how often they want it. They can customize what’s in their boxes, which are delivered directly to their homes.
“It’s not a hard sell,” spokesman Reilly Brock said.
Farmers are happy to make some money where they would have made none and customers “get hooked” on price savings and making shopping easier, he added.
Imperfect’s origin story starts with Ben Simon. While attending the University of Maryland, Simon was bothered by the amount of food waste on campus. He started the nonprofit Food Recovery Network to prevent food loss on college campuses.
Working to expand the Food Recovery Network, Simon met Ben Chesler. During a trip to California, the two Bens met Ron Clark, a produce industry veteran who had used his connections to find vendors who would donate “ugly” produce to California food banks.
The trio believed they could make a significant dent in the amount of “ugly” food going to waste by selling it directly to customers. They loosely based their produce subscription box on the community-supported agriculture model, but instead of supporting a single farm, customers were supporting a food movement.
Since starting in 2015, Imperfect Produce has expanded from the Bay Area into Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle and Chicago. They plan to continue to grow and are accepting pre-orders for $5 off the first box in various zip codes including Phoenix.
“Nobody is stoked about food waste,” Brock said. “It’s really just a math problem.”
3. Sprouts Farmers Market
When Sprouts employees inspect the produce departments, they have two options when they find an odd fruit or vegetable.
If the food is misshapen, bruised, near its expiration date or otherwise edible, it’s added to the supermarket’s Food Rescue program bin. If it’s split open or not suitable for human consumption, it’s added to Sprouts’ Food Waste to Farms box.
“We take imperfect produce and we donate it,” said Justin Kacer, a sustainability specialist for the Phoenix-based retailer that has an internal goal of zero waste by 2020.
The Food Rescue program started in 2013 and sends fresh produce and dry goods that are “unmarketable” to local food banks.
Sprouts is known for its focus on fresh produce. About 25 percent of its sales come from produce, compared to 10 to 15 percent in a traditional grocery store.
This focus on fresh means that about half of the food Sprouts donates is produce. That’s a boon for food banks that get a lot of processed or unhealthy products from other sources, Kacer said.
The donation program is active at all 285 Sprouts stores across the country. In 2015, Sprouts rescued 14 million pounds of food. That grew to 18 million pounds in 2016. Kacer estimates it will be 23 million pounds in 2017.
In Arizona, the program’s largest recipient is St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, followed by United Food Bank and the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.
The Food Waste to Farms program began in 2014 and sends expired, moldy or inedible food to farms to be used as animal feed or turned into compost.
The animal feed is a nutritious blend and ensures that food isn’t sent to a landfill. Most of it goes to feed cattle, Kacer said. He estimates that the Food Waste to Farms program will account for 27 million pounds of food in 2017.
So far, Sprouts’ programs have paid off. The company saves enough money on trash-associated costs to pay for its zero-waste programs, Kacer said.
Furthering its efforts, Sprouts is changing the design of its new stores by putting the storage and receiving areas closer together, which will make it easier for employees to get food intended for donations to the correct place. It’s also testing an aerobic digestion program, which will reduce organic waste at the source and save on monetary and environmental costs of transportation. Two stores in Chandler are part of the test.
“The way we see it, waste is indicative of inefficiencies in the system,” Kacer said.