Your food? It’s about to get ugly

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ugly food
(Photo: Kitchens for Good)

For years, produce growers and sellers have agonized over what to do with less-than-perfect-looking fruit and vegetables. They don’t meet industry grading standards or individual supermarket standards. They’re too small or too big, they’re misshapen, they’re not the right color, they have a tiny blemish — and consumers, who buy with their eyes, won’t touch them. Buyers reject them and sellers discard them.

Globally, one source claims, 46 percent of fruits and vegetables never make it from the farm to a table.

But now some of those picky eaters and buyers are wiser, realizing there’s a lot of value in that “cosmetically challenged” produce.

Thus enters the “ugly food” trend.

Consumers are slowly becoming more willing to buy seconds or cull produce. There are several motivating factors: a desire to support local growers; a greater understanding that there’s little difference safety-wise or taste-wise; and a growing awareness of the mountain of food wasted every day.

According to the Feeding America network of foodbanks, there’s roughly 70 billion pounds of food wasted in the U.S. every year. Not all of that is ugly food, and there are no data available to know how much substandard produce is pitched by growers or sellers.

European markets have been selling ugly food for a couple years, and now major U.S. sellers are also testing the waters. Earlier this year, Whole Foods joined with the venture startup Imperfect Produce to sell ugly fruits and vegetables at several California stores. (In 2015, Imperfect Produce crowdsourced $38,000 through an Indiegogo campaign to start a CSA-like delivery of imperfect produce to consumers, markets and foodservice locations.)

In March, Giant Eagle started selling “Produce With Personality” — like imperfect navel oranges, russet potatoes and apples — in a five-store pilot program.

“Whether you call them surplus, excess, seconds or just plain ugly, these are fruits and vegetables that may face rejection because they’re not considered perfect-looking,” said Dan Donovan, manager of corporate communications for Giant Eagle, in a prepared statement.  “But it’s the taste that matters.”

In Maryland, Hungry Harvest has been selling and home delivering bags of ugly fruits and vegetables, and for every bag sold, Hungry Harvest donates food to people in need. It gained attention after CEO Evan Lutz secured a $100,000 investment deal on the television show Shark Tank in January. According to one source, Hungry Harvest has more than 2,500 customers and sells 60,000 pounds a month.

Now Wal-Mart is throwing its retail weight into the produce anti-beauty pageant, and has started selling “I’m Perfect” apples — calling them beautifully imperfect — from Washington state in 300 stores in Florida. And earlier this year, it sold “Spuglies,” a brand of weather-damaged potatoes from the Texas-based company Pro-Health.

“What excites me the most about the launch of these ‘I’m Perfect’ apples is that it is a result of working with our suppliers to build the infrastructure and processes that create a new home for perfectly imperfect produce,” wrote Shawn Baldwin, senior vice president for Global Food Sourcing, Produce and Floral, on the company’s blog July 19. “Because ugly produce can occur unexpectedly in any growing season or crop, we want to have the systems in place to offer this type of produce whenever it may occur.”

It will be interesting to see if the demand or supply push is sufficient to change the clamor for perfect fruit, but the incremental steps are steps in the right direction. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

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(Read more commentaries and posts from Editor Susan Crowell.)

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