Awareness of the vast amount of food losses and waste occurring annually around the globe (more than one billion tons) is on the rise, although there is much work to do before it becomes a mainstream issue — particularly in developed countries like the US. Beyond awareness, there is a great need for action — such as tangible projects and partnerships to capture excess food and redirect it to the needy. Other projects can be developed to utilize excess food for animal feed, or industrial use, or compost. Growing legislation, particularly in the New England states, to ban food waste from landfills is sure to promote the search for alternative uses for excess food resources.
One of the most striking aspects of food waste in our current system involves the issue of blemished, or imperfectly-sized, produce. Millions of pounds of food are discarded annually in the US without ever leaving the farm. Consumers have been educated to expect produce of uniform size, perfect shape, and pristine appearance. Well-stocked supermarket shelves on a 24×7 basis support those expectations. Packaging, displays, and transportation systems are built around uniform size expectations. Fruits and vegetables that are too large, a bit small, or odd-shaped will not make it to market — as store operators will not expect it to sell. Durability and ease of transport have become the key characteristics sought by retailers. Similarly, items with minor blemishes will not be selected for market, nor will items that are presumed to be a bit beyond optimal ripeness (thus shortening the window that they can be made available for consumers in stores). In a “good” scenario, some of this food can be used to feed animals or for compost to nourish soils, but it still represents a considerable waste of resource inputs.
At retail, produce managers accept a certain level of waste in order to be perceived as consistently having the freshest produce available. Items with minor blemishes are quickly discarded, usually destined for the landfill, despite being perfectly suitable for consumption. The ability to convert such produce into other saleable items is often neglected due to concerns over time or cost constraints.
All of this waste of perfectly nutritious produce represents a tremendous opportunity. With nearly 50 million Americans experiencing food insecurity — and rising obesity levels due to inadequate access to high quality calories — there is a great need to direct this produce to people for consumption. On a global level, with FAO estimates of roughly one billion people across the world experiencing hunger and nearly two billion experiencing micronutrient deficiencies, it is essential to initiate change in the food system to make use of odd-sized, slightly blemished produce. Thankfully, that opportunity is beginning to be addressed by several organizations, including Fruta Feia, Intermarche, and Sincuru.
Fruta Feia recognizes that, as in many developed countries, roughly one-third of produce in Portugal goes to waste, much of it due to the fact that food distribution channels will not handle fruits and vegetables that don’t represent perfection. The group used crowdfunding to launch, and seeks to create a movement to reduce food waste based on the message: “Don’t judge the quality by the exterior.” Well said.
Intermarche, the third largest supermarket chain in France, has addressed the problem of wasted produce through its “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign. The company created a separate category for imperfect (aka “inglorious”) fruits and vegetables, buying those items that are normally discarded upstream and selling them at a 30% discount to “normal” produce. The company created an effective messaging campaign with characters such as “the grotesque apple,” “the ridiculous potato,” and “the ugly carrot.” Soups and drinks were made from these items to emphasize the idea that although they were different in appearance, they were just as good as “perfect” produce. One of the group’s key statements regarding the ugly carrot: “In a soup, who cares?” Again, well said.
Sincuru is a UK-based start-up that captures “imperfect” fruits and vegetables that would not typically make it to retail (perhaps due to blemishes or excessive ripeness), assembles the produce into weekly portions, and delivers them to customers who place orders through an on-line platform. Offerings include a “Fruitybag,” a “Veggybag,” and a “Mixybag” (which includes recovered fruits and vegetables). Sincuru’s model includes rapid delivery: orders that are placed by 11 PM on Saturday are delivered the following Monday.
All three of these organizations are chipping away at a core problem of the food system — one with key sustainability implications — the notion that fruits and vegetables must be “perfect” to be presented for sale to consumers. Let’s hope they are the tipping point to a larger movement which recognizes the value in what is currently viewed as “imperfect” produce — but which in nutritional value is indeed “perfect.”