Along with the rain, warmer weather, and longer days, another true sign that spring is officially here is the advent of farmers' market season. Yes, it’s time to fill our carts and eco-friendly bags with shiny apples, perfectly round tomatoes, even-colored oranges, and fuzz-free peaches. But, what about the ripened yet oversized cantaloupes and bumpy watermelons that don’t fit so snugly into our fruit and vegetable bins? What about the slightly dented, curvy, or misshapen cucumbers, carrots, or bell peppers? More often than not, cosmetically-challenged produce won't make it to your local grocery store or on the vendors' stands at the farmers' market.
Before, if a fruit or vegetable was thought to be the ugly duckling of the produce section, retailers wouldn't allow it to be grouped with the beautiful swans. That may not be the case anymore, thanks to a recent trend we hope catches on throughout the country: the “ugly produce” movement.
The “ugly produce” movement or #LoveUglyFood campaign celebrates unattractive and naturally imperfect goods. Instead of throwing away or leaving harvested crops to decompose in the field, the "ugly foods" movement is helping to fight food and water waste, support farmers, and aid low-income families. According to stats released by the USDA and EPA in a press release in 2015, food loss and waste in the United States accounts for almost 31% of the overall food supply available to retailers and consumers.
That’s right. For every supermarket that refuses to carry certain produce and for every customer that refuses to buy it solely based on looks, we waste about a third of our food supply. In layman’s terms, it’s enough food waste to feed almost two billion people. So every time a farmer harvests crops that no one will eat, water, seeds, land, fertilizer, and pesticides needed to grow these crops are wasted, all because of superficial cosmetic standards.
Personally, I’ve always been drawn to odd-looking produce (partly for economic reasons). In the same way that I’m unafraid to purchase irregular clothes at a discount, I’m also the girl who boldly asks for the fruit hidden under the table at farmers' markets. Yes, even that mesh bag of reduced and strange looking onions is up for grabs. Why not? The taste is exactly the same for a misshapen piece of fruit or vegetable as it is the pretty one, and the markdown on “ugly” fruits and vegetables can range anywhere from 30% to 50% off the average retail price. That's what I’d like to call blemishes at a bargain!
Like me, other countries have been on board the "ugly foods" movement, but shoppers and retailers in America have been slow to accept the idea—until now that is. Giant Eagle has launched a pilot program in Pittsburgh to sell unappealing produce at a discount. Whole Foods Market is pairing up with Imperfect Produce, a delivery service that sources and delivers “ugly” produce boxes at an affordable cost to California residents. Starting in April, Whole Foods will begin testing certain fruits and vegetables in Northern California stores. You may even remember an earlier episode this year on ABC’s “Shark Tank” where investor, Robert Herjavec, made a deal with Hungry Harvest. Hungry Harvest, similar to Imperfect Produce, recovers and delivers “ugly” produce in the Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Delaware areas and, for every box sold, donates a box to the hungry.
Sure, we’ve all been conditioned to want our food to look pretty. There’s nothing really wrong with that, except that pretty doesn’t always mean natural. When it comes to produce, often times our fruits and veggies are subjected to chemicals or manufacturing processes to make them have instant curb appeal for buyers. And if that notion, along with conserving food waste and saving the environment hasn’t convinced you to join the movement, then maybe the possibility of capturing some Instagram-worthy moments with wonky-shaped produce will. Needless to say, we’re calling on you to love the uglies this produce season! Will you get on board with these startups and chains in the #uglyproduce movement?