Imperfect. Wonky. Askew. Or, of course, the old, requisite standby—“ugly.” Words that we’ve come to know over the course of our lifetimes as synonymous with slightly “off,” straying from the norm, or, more often, simply as code for “bad.” The quest for aesthetic perfection is so impressed upon us from our earliest ages that it shouldn’t come as any surprise when we purposefully shun produce or other foodstuffs that differ the least bit in appearance from the camera-ready, cultural norms we’ve come to know, love and covet.
Ugly by the numbers
Welcome to the ghastly world of ugly produce and, ultimately—food waste—where unsold, castoff and otherwise perfectly edible fruits and vegetables with minor imperfections go on to landfills with copious volume and velocity, while an estimated 42.2 million people in the U.S. carry on about their daily lives as food insecure.
The fact we do this is not the shocking bit. It’s so ingrained a behavior that we mostly do it impulsively. What’s astounding, if not downright alarming, however, is just how much of it we’re doing. While numbers fluctuate on precisely how much food we waste, a mid-2016 report published by The Guardian cites research that suggests we throw away roughly 50 percent of all food produce in the United States, to the tune of approximately $160 billion wasted annually.
The apple of our eye
Ponder for a moment, if you will, the countless times you’ve found yourself in the produce aisle of your local market or grocery store sifting through a menagerie of colorful apples, in search of that perfectly shaped, shiny Fuji, Granny Smith or Red Delicious. Spy a minor bruise? Back in the bin. Slight deformity, dimple or nick? Next. And on it goes.
In that short period of time it took you to sort through them and identify the ideal specimen(s), you (and I) passed over countless nutritious, and, as aforementioned—completely edible—wholly delicious pieces of fruit. Extrapolate that over the course of a lifetime, while safely assuming that most of us are repeating this aesthetic vetting exercise, and the volume of discarded produce at just one juncture, alone, is colossal. More importantly, it’s unsustainable.
And, all of that is going on the assumption that these fruits and veggies will even have the opportunity to grace the stage at your local store. Much of the produce grown for harvest could rot on the vine or be diverted to landfills before ever being given the chance to make into your cart, if it doesn’t adhere to the strict aesthetic standards of many retailers.
Awareness is key in the fight
In late 2014, French grocery chain Intermarché along with agency Marcel Paris created an award-winning, global campaign of ingenious print ads and videos, entitled “Inglorious Fruits & Vegetables” which spoke to the urgency of addressing food waste. By highlighting a number of misshapen fruits and vegetables, such as the “ugly carrot,” “disfigured eggplant,” and “the failed lemon,” they employed a humorous angle to call attention to the absurdity and scale of the epidemic in Europe.
In 2015 and 2016 things began ramping up stateside, as well, with celebrity chef Roy Choi opening L.A. and Oakland-based outposts of LocoL, his affordable, sustainable fast-food venture with partner, Daniel Patterson, which seeks to minimize food waste as a cornerstone of its mission. A number of other well-known, culinary torchbearers are also taking it upon themselves to lead the charge against food waste.
Launching recently, and coincidentally in the same markets, is the Bay Area’s Imperfect Produce, a direct-to-consumer, online home-delivery service, specializing in sourcing ugly produce. Likewise, some large U.S. grocery chains are stepping up to reduce waste via offering ugly produce discounts in stores, expanding food-donation programs, as well as increasing recycling, green energy and waste-diversion efforts.
What you can do to help
The EPA has a comprehensive list of tips, tweaks and changes you can begin implementing as part of your own gameplan to meaningfully reduce food waste on the homefront.
Seek out local farmer’s or green markets to find purveyors who may be catching on to the ugly produce trend in your area.
Donate. Help feed those who may otherwise go hungry or are undernourished. See something wholesome approaching its expiration date and realize you might not get to eat it? Don’t just toss it the garbage. Seek out local food banks, soup kitchens, shelters or charities who can deliver your excess food to those in need.
The first place you’ll be able to quickly effectuate some change is by referring to the above and showing ugly produce some love at the market. Don’t see much of it in your area? Ask your local grocer if they have a program in place, or plan on instituting one, in order to offer imperfect fruits and vegetables for sale, now, or at some point in the future.
Editor’s note: For more tips and tricks for reducing food waste (and creative ways to use fruit and veg that are “on the edge”), check out our Zero Hunger, Zero Waste initiative.