Pittsburgh CSA finds market for ugly, surplus produce

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yellow zucchini in a box
Yellow zucchini wait to be sorted into boxes for 412 Food Rescue's UglyCSA. The UglyCSA provides an outlet for farmers to sell surplus or cosmetically inferior produce. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

PITTSBURGH — Ugly vegetables need some love, too. That’s the goal of 412 Food Rescue’s UglyCSA. The program created a market for otherwise unsold produce, aiming to reduce food waste, save resources and support local farmers.

Unsold doesn’t mean inedible. The fruits and veggies might be misshapen, oversized or just plain surplus.

“We really struggle with distribution,” said Hana Uman, program director with 412 Food Rescue. “A lot of that comes from perceptions of what can be eaten, what is ‘good,’ things like that.”

To the rescue

 412 Food Rescue formed in 2015 to “keep perfectly good food out of the waste stream,” Uman said.

The organization works with food donor partners — like grocery stores, farms, restaurants and distributors — to take their surplus food and donate it to nonprofit partners like soup kitchens and food pantries.

They also donate food to nontraditional partners who have clients that could use food like family support centers, daycares and housing authorities, Uman said.

In the last four years, the group has re-purposed more than 5.6 million pounds of food.

Getting started

In 2016, to further this mission, 412 Food Rescue went straight to farmers to help them sell their seconds.

They partnered with Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance, a cooperative of more than 25 regional farms, to buy produce from their farmers and sell it as a CSA share.

Jeralyn Beach, manager at the farm alliance, said the produce that goes into the UglyCSA tastes fine and is healthy, but it might not look like what people are used to getting at the grocery store or farmers’ market.

Greens may have blemishes on them. A carrot might have too many splits. A zucchini that could be just a bit longer than the standard 6-8 inches.

“It doesn’t mean it’s going to taste bad. It just doesn’t fit the standard,” she said.

Sometimes, it’s not ugly at all. It’s just a bumper crop.

“If something comes on quicker or more than anticipated with succession planting, we can move that for them,” Beach said.

How it’s going

The first year, the UglyCSA had 40 shares available and ran for eight weeks. It sold out in a day, Uman said.

The next year, 2017, they did 126 shares. Last year, they jumped up to 213 shares.

This year is the biggest yet at 250 shares, and it sold out immediately. Uman said there’s already a wait list to get in next year’s UglyCSA.

The UglyCSA had its first delivery July 17 and runs for 12 weeks through Oct. 2. Members can pick up their boxes in one of nine neighborhoods around Pittsburgh.

The cost is $240, which equals out to about $20 per week for a box with eight to 10 produce items in it.

As it is with most CSAs, the produce each week varies depending on what farmers have available. The first week, members got kale, zucchini, cucumbers, kohlrabi, snap peas, green beans, cabbage and lettuce.

“On farms, a lot of resources go into producing food,” Uman said. “So we want to preserve those by providing an outlet for their food.”

Buying one UglyCSA share saves 2,110 gallons of water by providing a market for food that otherwise would’ve gone to waste, according to 412 Food Rescue.

Changing markets

One of the challenges of the UglyCSA, Beach said, is reminding farmers to bring in their ugly and surplus produce.

For so long, they haven’t had a market for this type of product. So when a crop would be blemished or come on too quickly during the busy summer months, farmers might abandon that portion of the field.

They needed to devote precious labor hours on crops that could be sold. Gleaners with a local food bank might come out to harvest or it might just get tilled under, Beach said.

“It’s an ongoing thing to get their heads wrapped around how this works,” she said. “They’re so used to not having an outlet for these types of products.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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