The Secret Life of Ugly Produce

Fruits and veggies that don't fit aesthetic standards get tossed out by the ton.

An interesting article on Bon Appétit really gave me pause yesterday. I highly recommend giving it a read. Apparently, Americans let 25 billion pounds of produce go to waste in 2010. There are very high aesthetic standards in place that decide which fruits and vegetables make it to the supermarket shelves. Even if an ‘uglier’ strawberry or tomato is more flavorful or nutritious, it gets tossed out. Frequently, the discarded food goes straight to a landfill instead of to sellers or to the hungry.

“You’d be surprised. Unfortunately, the reality is that it most often fills dumpsters…In major agricultural areas, landfills are brimming with produce…Say [a farm] process[es] a million pounds of lettuce a day. They’re pretty good at forecasting, but they may harvest 1 percent too much. That’s 1 percent, but 1 percent is still 10,000 pounds of lettuce. They need that off of their dock by the next day, because they’ll have a whole new shipment of lettuce coming in. Often the quickest and easiest thing to do is just send it to a landfill.” – Dana Gunders, Natural Resources Defense Council (Bon Appétit)

Gunders praised a California peach farmer who makes the difficult effort to donate half his “undesirable” crop (which is about 200,000 pounds a week) to a food bank, and the other half to a dairy farmer for feed. But the cost to transport all that fruit is high, even though there are so many people who need it. She also made the point that based on farmers markets, consumers surely are more willing to accept imperfect-looking fruit than supermarkets think we are.

The article’s author quotes Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s and founder of Daily Table:

“There are two situations in which people suspend the need to have perfect-looking fruits and vegetables. One is in farmers’ markets. Much of the product [there] wouldn’t have made it through a Whole Foods inspection line, but at the farmers’ markets, those qualities are prized. People think it’s ‘authentic.’…You could have the weirdest, funkiest produce there is, and the moment you call it an heirloom variety, people go nuts for it.” (Bon Appétit)

It sounds like we need more access to imperfect produce. For the time being, local CSAs can help, because the crop gets distributed no matter what it looks like. (Try JBG or Urban Acres.) Who says that only perfectly round, evenly red tomatoes are the only acceptable ones, anyway?

There is some good news in that a few companies are taking up the torch to prevent food waste. A French supermarket called Intermarché launched an initiative called Inglorious Fruits & Vegetables to sell ugly produce at a 30% discount. Their ads are great (see below). Here is a story about the supermarket and what it’s doing.

Photo: Intermarché
Photo: Intermarché