Walking through the produce section of your local grocery store, you’d think that all apples grew with flawless skin, that every peach came off the tree perfectly round and that all carrots look the same when harvested. While some pieces of produce are genetically blessed, there’s a host of fruits and vegetables that never make it to the grocery store simply because they’re not pretty enough. Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn’t track how much produce ends up in a landfill because they failed to meet beauty standards, it’s hard to say exactly how much of a harvest is wasted for superficial reasons. However, surveys of farmers in Minnesota and California suggest that anywhere from 5 to 30 percent of a harvest is lost because of physical imperfections.
“The worst offender for us is potatoes. I’d say we cull up to 30-35 percent … because of weird, cosmetic things they have,” said Tim Terpstra, the farm manager at Ralph’s Greenhouse, which grows mostly root vegetables on a 250- acre spread in Mt. Vernon, Wash.
According to the USDA, food waste is the single biggest source of waste in municipal landfills and it’s a major contributor of the potent greenhouse gas methane. That’s why, in September of 2015, the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with many private sector and food-bank partners, announced that they were setting a goal for the country: reduce food waste by 50 percent by the year 2030.
In February, grocery store chain Giant Eagle was the first to take up the challenge, announcing its new
Produce with Personality program. The program, which is still being tested at the Pittsburgh-area stores, aims to tackle food waste by selling imperfect produce at a discounted rate.
“Cosmetic imperfections allow us to offer these items to customers at very attractive prices,” said Giant Eagle spokesperson Daniel Donovan.
Under the Produce with Personality program a 4-pound bag of blemished oranges can sell for $2.99 while the conventional version sells for $4.99. The cost effectiveness of purchasing ugly produce is once of the most attractive features that could encourage customers not to judge a book by its cover. Aside from the monetary savings, ugly fruit may even pack more of a nutritious punch than its more conventionally attractive brothers and sisters. A study published in the Journal of Horticultural Science & Biotechnology in 2010 found that an apple covered in scab has more healthy, antioxidant phenolic compounds, called phenylpropanoids, than a scab-free apple peel.
As information about the waste of “ugly” produce got around, the public started to demand something be done. Jordan Figueiredo, a solid waste specialist and founder of UglyFruitandVeg.org, along with Stefanie Sacks, author of “What the Fork Are You Eating?” and culinary nutritionist, started a petition on Change.org calling out Wal-Mart and Whole Foods. The petition cites the millions of Americans that go hungry each year while we throw out nearly 30 percent of our fruits and vegetables. It called for Whole Foods and Wal-Mart to start selling ugly produce at a reduced rate.The petition cited the French supermarket giant Intermarche’s highly successful “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables Campaign” as proof that it can be done on a large scale and that selling imperfect produce can actually increase foot traffic, as it did by 24 percent for the grocery chain.
The petition garnered 111,620 supporters and first caught the attention of Whole Foods representatives who spoke with the co-authors. The co-authors of the petition connected Whole Foods with Imperfect Produce, a California-based delivery CSA service that exclusively uses ugly produce. In March, Whole Foods announced their deal with Imperfect Produce to test the sales of imperfect fruits and vegetables in their Northern California stores starting in April. Prior to this announcement, Whole Foods was already doing their part to reduce food waste by using imperfect produce in their juices and smoothies as well as offering an in-store composting system. According to a spokesperson, Whole Foods plans on continuing to explore ways to move toward zero waste.
In April, Wal-Mart began to advertise “Spuglies” (AKA water-damaged potatoes) in roughly 400 stores across Texas. By July, they announced that they were continuing to test the waters and would be selling bags of weather dented apples in 300 of their Florida stores.
“We’re excited to announce that after months of discussion, a brand of apples from Washington state, called ‘I’m Perfect,’ will make its debut in Wal-Mart stores this week,” Shawn Baldwin, senior vice president for global food sourcing, produce and floral for Wal-Mart U.S., wrote in a company blog post. He adds, “We’re proud to be the first retailer to bring these apples to you.” The apples will be sold in 2- and 5-pound bags, he says.
It is still unclear whether or not Americans will be able to get over their superficial expectations for produce, but the success that grocery stores have had with the concept overseas is encouraging. While there aren’t plans to start this program in America quite yet, earlier this year, Wal-Mart’s UK grocery chain, Asda, started selling “wonky veg” boxes containing 11 pounds of imperfect produce for the
equivalent of $4.60.
It seems that no matter which way you look at it, embracing the ugliness of fruits and vegetables is beneficial to everyone. Healthy produce would be more affordable for low-income families, the environment would take less of a hit from the rotting vegetables filling our landfills and it would be a boon for both farmers and grocery store chains. All it takes is recognizing that no matter how it may look on the outside, it’s what’s inside that counts.