Burning Question: Is There a Market for Ugly Food?

With nearly half of America’s food ending up in landfills, farmers and consumers alike are finding use for "imperfect” produce.

by Karen Lanier

Is There a Market For Ugly Food? (HobbyFarms.com)

Editor’s Note: “Burning Questions” takes an in-depth look at the hot-button issues facing today’s farmers. The ideas expressed here are not the opinions of Hobby Farms, but of individual farmers and food advocates rooted in the local-food movement. If you have thoughts or opinions about what is expressed here, please contribute them in the comments below. We want to hear from you, too!

It’s Sunday afternoon. I’m in a spacious and elegant kitchen with an eclectic group of new friends, armed with knives and chopping boards. We’re digging through boxes of green and purple cabbage leaves, an armload of mangoes with the occasional bruise, and bushels of organic apples. Conversations bubble up around how to process this abundance of fresh food and make meals for the week ahead—how to make haste with waste: “How much salt do you add to the chopped cabbage?” “How many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?” “Does anyone have cilantro for the salsa?”

All this food was thrown out at a local market. An arrangement was made with my resourceful friends who manage community composting, and with a Facebook post and access to a fine kitchen, several of us converged to salvage and share the bounty. Nine happy, healthy, employed and sane citizens will eat dumpster-dived meals this week, and thoroughly enjoy the mango salsa, sauerkraut and baked apples. Back at home, my breakfasts are ready, as well. The freezer is full of smoothies I made from produce on the discount shelf : organic bananas for $0.38 a pound and a bag of oranges for $1. I am all about ugly food.

The homogenous scene of shiny, perfect, and consistent fruits and vegetables that greets you in a chain supermarket betrays the truth about food waste. Globally, about a third of all food grown is never consumed. In America, estimates on produce waste push the 50-percent mark. The cracks that good food falls through include industry standards for grading, spoilage on the long road from farm to table, and the mechanization of harvesting. Approximately 96 billion pounds of food goes to waste in America, much of that ends up in landfills, and we pay $1 billion per year to dispose of it.

The good news is that globally, consciousness is rising in appreciation of fresh food, perfect or not. Major efforts to reduce waste in food systems are spreading throughout Europe, with the support of the European Commission’s declaration of 2014 as the “European Year Against Food Waste.” The United States EPA and USDA joint report entitled “Waste Not, Want Not” addressed the major discrepancies in this country. They construct what they refer to as a “hierarchy of food recovery and waste redirection” which prioritizes solutions:

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  • recovering food to feed hungry people
  • providing food to livestock farmers or zoos
  • recycling food for industrial purposes
  • composting food to improve soil fertility

Noble as these goals may be, policies are tough to get excited about. The fun comes in marketing. Public perceptions about food safety and value have to be tweaked, and advertising can be used for a greater good. Canada’s largest retail grocery store, Loblaws, launched a campaign to market their ugly apples and potatoes by bagging and branding them “No Name Naturally Imperfect.” The French grocer Intermarché called their similar campaign, “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” and proved to be a success, attracting 24-percent more traffic in their stores.

On the wholesale end, products such as vegetable soups, fruit juices, and peeled and diced winter squash open up value-added markets that aesthetically challenged crops can easily fill. As a farm volunteer a couple of summers ago, I helped harvest a field of sweet potatoes. With surprise and disappointment, we couldn’t believe that every single tuber we pulled out had been nibbled by rodents! It looked like a total loss. However, the community-conscious farmer knew of a social service agency that trains and employs disabled people in processing food. We took them our pallets full of sweet potatoes and they peeled and packaged them for local restaurants to make sweet potato fries.

If we had taken those potatoes to market, we might have been able to sell them and would have ended up donating them as a last resort. Farmers’ markets are less interested in restricting food appearance than making food accessible. Many work in tandem with emergency food shelters. Bargains can be found at the end of the market when collard greens are wilting but will perk up with a quick dunk in ice water. A basket full of pock-marked summer squash labeled “seconds” can be a profitable deal for both the farmer and the shopper.

Second Harvest, the national food bank network, estimated that 21 million Americans depend on food donations, but charities often run out of fresh food to give them. Gleaning organizations can help connect the produce with the people. Where I live in Lexington, Ky., a nonprofit called GleanKY picks up what gets left behind, at farmers’ markets, grocery stores and even straight off the farm. Volunteers deliver the food to feeding organizations and shelters. They fill the gap between the supply of edible and nutritious food that is at risk of rotting and the 1 in 6 people in Kentucky who are at risk of hunger.

If you want to make the most of the food our earth provides and do something to help reduce food waste, you have many options. If you are a consumer, buy the seconds and uglies and show the retailers and farmers that you accept that beauty is only skin-deep. Chef Dan Barber is doing just this in his new pop-up restaurant WastED. If you are a grower, try to negotiate with your markets, whether wholesale, retail or direct to consumer, and try to be flexible on pricing. If you are the rest of America, quit being snobs and embrace fruits and veggies with curious bumps and twisty parts. Invite your equally interesting friends over to help you make the best of it.

Your Thoughts

We asked you if you on social media if you thought there was a market for ugly produce. Here’s what you said:

Sean Perry: Why does it not go into industrial food? Who cares if the carrot has two legs if the customer only sees little cubes in their pot pies?

Candace Familia: My kids love ugly food! They think it’s cool looking. When people stopped having their own gardens and own chickens or other foods, they also lost a deep experience where they KNOW what they are eating. If we are so spoiled of a country that an “imperfect” carrot goes to waste, that’s a shame.

Jen Haley: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve never found conformity attractive.

Laura Davis: Sometimes I buy a particular veggie because it looks weird! It makes me laugh and is a sure sign it was home grown and not mass-produced to look a certain way.

Marcy Guy: What if you took artsy photos of the ugly food and created a whole product category around it? Make it seem special that it is not perfect. Start a Pinterest board showcasing cool-looking ugly vegetables and a Twitter hashtag. Demand may go up if it is promoted as quirky and fun.

Amanda Blount: I would really love to own an “ugly food” market! I just can’t accept that humans actually throw away food, because it is ugly, when there are people starving in the same towns.

Stephanie Daack Reynolds: I wish that farmers could sell ugly produce because I want them to earn the living they worked hard for! But I also volunteer with the Society of St. Andrew, and we glean farmers’ fields and farmers drop their crops off for us to bag and give to local food pantries, church outreaches, shelters, etc. Last week we bagged up 14,000 pounds of apples that a farmer had that could not be sold. The farmers do get to write all those off for taxes, but that is not as profitable as selling the produce.

Rachel Lane: Around here, we just call it Mother Nature’s way of being creative. It’s boring to do the same thing over and over.

Lynda Swink: I am often surprised at myself in the market because I always go for the perfect. And yet, when I go to my garden to pick I never throw anything away. Even the stuff that is too far gone goes to the chickens or at least into my compost bins. How and why have we become such a food phobic nation?

Jessica Moffett Bramblett: People need to stop regarding food as entertainment. Throwing out ugly food is wasteful and misses the point of producing food.

Join the conversation below!

Farmers often miss out on profits because their produce isn’t picture perfect. For this week’s Burning Question, we’re…

Posted by Hobby Farms on Saturday, March 28, 2015

About the Author: Karen Lanier is a writer, photographer and teacher based in Lexington, Ky. She appreciates the bluegrass and Appalachian land she lives on now, while her heart is built out of the red dirt of the Texas panhandle and the adobe walls of northern New Mexico.

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