In praise of ugly produce

Buyers and sellers should re-think beauty standards for fruits and vegetables.

Food Friends. Photo credit: Mariel Borgman
Food Friends. Photo credit: Mariel Borgman

Grocery retailers demand produce that looks attractive on the shelf because they know customers will select the best-looking items to purchase. Shoppers expect to find carrots that are long and straight, tomatoes that are perfectly round and red, and apples that are shiny and blemish-free. To meet these expectations, farmers and retailers reject produce that does not meet these visual qualities. Produce that is edible, but not up to par cosmetically, all too often ends up in a landfill.

In an effort to change the way that we treat “ugly” produce, retailers, farmers markets, and consumers around the world are embracing less-than-perfect produce. This works to address larger issues like food waste and its associated economic losses. In the United States, food waste costs restaurants and retail operations $30-40 billion per year and $20 billion in the farming and food processing operations, according to data provided by the EPA’s Food Recovery program.

In 2014, it was estimated by the USDA that nearly 1/3 of edible and available food in the United States was wasted by retailers and consumers, totaling or 133 billion pounds. This figure does not take into consideration additional losses of edible food that was discarded between the farm and the retailer. Some retailers are implementing food recovery programs to divert this food to food banks and food pantries. Internationally, some retailers are taking a different approach by marketing and selling ugly fruits and vegetables to consumers, often at a discounted price.

In France, Intermarché supermarkets ran a sale on ugly produce along with a marketing campaign that included recipes for using the imperfect produce and offered the items at a 30 percent discount. The campaign increased traffic in their stores by 24 percent and they sold out of their entire stock of “Inglorius Fruits and Vegetables.” Canadian supermarket chain Loblaw offers a line of produce branded “No Name Naturally Imperfect,” offered to consumers at up to 30 percent less than their “perfect” counterparts. Portugal is home to Fruta Feia, an entire cooperative business devoted to selling ugly produce.

Intermarche - 'Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables' from Goodvertising on Vimeo.

Carrots with noses and legs get kids laughing and curious about fruits and vegetables when transformed into “Food Friends” as part of the Fresh Food is Fun educational programs at farmers’ markets. At the Kalamazoo Farmers’ Market, Michigan State University Extension’s Michigan Fresh Campaign is partnering with Fresh Food is Fun to encourage children and adults to explore their farmers’ market, interact with growers, and learn how to use, store, and preserve Michigan fruits and vegetables.

This farmers’ market season, keep an eye out for ugly produce at your local market and ask your farmer if you don’t see it. A farmer may be interested in selling their ugly produce or “seconds” if the consumer is asking for it. Be mindful of food safety when purchasing and using ugly produce. Avoid consuming produce with signs of mold, spoilage, bruising, or insect damage. Use your ugly produce in soups, smoothies, juice, puree, sauces, and more; and rejoice in the fact that a perfectly good piece of produce was spared from the landfill.

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