I was struck this month by an article carried by the Associated Press commenting that the “ugly” produce trend (also known as “imperfect” produce) may be hitting limits, as some major food retailers – including Walmart, Whole Foods, and Price Chopper – have recently discontinued ugly produce lines. Price Chopper’s VP of Public Relations and Consumer Services was quoted as saying that “customers didn’t accept it as much as we had hoped.” The authors noted that other regional chains (Meijer, Hannaford, and Giant Eagle), have also stopped carrying ugly produce (Progressive Grocer reported on the discontinuation of imperfect produce lines after trial periods in October).
Yet at the same time, we’ve seen a surge of interest in imperfect produce from a business perspective, as entrepreneurs, fueled by rising momentum behind food waste and aided by e-commerce platforms, seek to exploit the senseless waste of millions of tons of perfectly good, cosmetically-challenged fruits and vegetables via on-line sales to environmentally, financially, and socially conscious consumers. Evan Lutz launched Hungry Harvest out of his college dorm back in 2014, and has since expanded deliveries throughout the Maryland/DC/Virginia region, as well as areas of Delaware, Philadelphia, Florida, North Carolina, and Detroit. Shortly thereafter, Ben Simon launched Imperfect Produce in northern California, and the company has since expanded up and down the West Coast as well as in the Midwest, Texas, and the Baltimore/Washington area. In 2017, Courtney Bell launched Ungraded Produce in North Carolina’s Research Triangle region. And the Misfit Juicery team, which began by making juices from excess produce on the East Coast in 2015, now seems to be transitioning to a model encompassing a larger number of food items as Misfit Foods. Further, we have numerous organizations across the country, such as the Drexel University Food Lab (led by Jonathan Deutsch) and Regrained, who are “upcycling” excess food that would otherwise go to waste into new products for consumption.
These organizations are chipping away at the massive amount of nutritious produce that is lost or wasted on U.S. farms (which totals 20 billion pounds annually as noted in the ReFED report, cited here in a piece by Jordan Figuerido back in 2016). Hungry Harvest notes that it has rescued more than 12 million pounds of food from going to waste to date, while contributing over 900,000 pounds to hunger solving organizations. Imperfect Produce states that it has saved 40 million pounds of produce, while donating nearly two million pounds. And while just getting started, Ungraded Produce notes that it has rescued over 40,000 pounds of produce while donating nearly 5,000 pounds to hunger relief agencies.
So to me, the overall dichotomy here is quite perplexing. We have retailers seemingly pulling back on imperfect produce experiments at the same time that entrepreneurs are attracting capital and expanding recovery and distribution operations. And the business opportunity makes intuitive sense: We have massive amounts of perfectly edible, less-than-perfect produce available to feed people. We have over 40 million citizens facing food insecurity who need high-quality food. We have a health crisis stemming from the fact that much of our population is not eating enough of the “right” foods (i.e. fruits and vegetables). And by wasting so much of the food items that we should be eating, we’re harming the environment through methane emissions as that food decomposes in landfills.
And while not all food retailers are backing off from product lines based on imperfect produce (Kroger, for example, recently launched its Pickuliar Picks program as part of its highly commendable Zero Hunger/Zero Waste program), the fact that several are doing so yields one big takeaway: We need to progress much further in terms of educating the U.S. population about the scale and gravity of the food waste challenge, especially regarding the waste of billions of pounds of highly nutritious produce annually due largely to minor cosmetic imperfections, simply because we are conditioned to seek only “perfect” items of uniform size and shape. A brief conversation with any food bank representative will quickly reveal just how valuable this food is to all food system stakeholders, and will highlight the social, environmental, and financial costs of its waste. Further, the recently released EAT-Lancet Commission report underscores the importance of such items in stressing the need for a shift in diets that provide for both human and planetary health.
We must get to a point where the average consumer is pushing retailers for change in terms of optimizing the use of precious food resources. Such a transition requires broad and deep educational efforts starting in our schools, and we can’t afford to delay. We must impact the current (and next) generation of youth to properly value food – to normalize food waste reduction rather than food wasting behavior – so that they are driving and supporting the needed transformation in our food system. It’s not a stretch to say that their future quality of life depends on such a transformation, as a review of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report makes clear.
Such a transformation will require prevention of food waste at scale, avoiding the consumption of resources and environmental externalities of food that is produced only to flow through the entire food supply chain and end up in landfills. But it will also involve circular concepts, with “ugly” or “imperfect” produce being efficiently used at its highest point of value – feeding people. We’ll need educational efforts to break down our prevailing bias toward “perfect” produce created by our post-War culture of abundance. And we’ll need to shift our thinking to embrace the cosmetic imperfections in fruits and vegetables, recognizing that any concept of perfection here should really be focused on optimization of these critical food resources for the health of people and planet.
Ultimately, we need to change behavior among consumers to generate demand for the billions of pounds of imperfect produce that is going to waste annually. I’m reminded of the success of French retailer Intermarche’s Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables campaign, which increased awareness of the opportunity in imperfect produce by creating a separate product line at a 30% discount and extolling the benefits of such items – including the Hideous Orange (which makes beautiful juice), the Grotesque Apple (one a day keeps the doctor away as well), and the Ugly Carrot (in a soup, who cares?).
Changing behavior is never easy, although conceptually connecting billions of pounds of excess edible nutritious food with millions of hungry people seems eminently sensible. As food waste expert Jonathan Bloom notes, “Most everyone wants to minimize wasted food. Yet the majority of consumers don’t equate buying ugly produce with doing just that. Also, many people support ugly produce in theory but can’t quite bring themselves to do so in practice – especially when quirky fruits and vegetables are next to the normalized perfect produce.” Bloom further notes that “We’ve succeeded in building awareness on the need to minimize wasted food. Yet there’s still a disconnect on how we as individuals can actually do it.”
Well said. Part of that disconnect stems from the fact that many individuals think they are too small a cog in the food system machine to make a difference. And the ease with which we can all discard excess food, and then replace it with additional “perfect” produce, supports food wasting behavior. We must address this through strong educational efforts; while there are some great initiatives emerging in schools, we’ve only scratched the surface to date.
And while business models in imperfect produce are developing, we need to pull the average consumer along faster through a rapid rollout of educational efforts in our schools. While doing so, it wouldn’t hurt to link such efforts to the push for achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, for reducing food waste would strongly advance many of them.
Ultimately, when it comes to imperfect produce, we have much educational work to do to change the behavior of consumers, who in turn should drive change in already food waste-savvy retailers. Fortunately, the fundamental concept of consuming (rather than wasting) imperfect produce makes perfect sense – because it provides the needed nutritional benefit, tastes great, and can be purchased at lower cost. So when it comes to appearance, as Intermarche’s Ugly Carrot states, “who really cares?”