How One Cleveland Company Is Bringing Ugly Back
Love the uglies. It's a rally cry and an imperative. Each year, millions of pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables are thrown out in America, discarded because they aren't aesthetically pleasing to notoriously picky supermarket shoppers. One Ohio company is rescuing these perfectly good foods and giving them new life on the plates of people who have a hard time accessing these fresh foods.
Earlier this year, we called on you to love the uglies. If you missed it, the uglies we're fawning over are misshapen fruits and veggies that are rejected by supermarkets or dumped in no man's land by farmers—all because of their appearance. Assuming these "ugly foods" ever make it to market, you're probably guilty of skipping over them in the produce section in favor of their perfectly shaped brethren. Even the beloved childhood toy Mr. Potato Head is bringing awareness to the uglies.
But food, like people, comes in all different shapes, colors, and sizes. While we've been conditioned to accept our differences in each other, we seem to be slow in appreciating the outward differences in our produce. It would appear that lumpy, bumpy apples or slightly bent bananas don't have a place in our grocery carts or in our homes. Yet, that same careful selection of fruits and vegetables is leading to massive food waste in the country, to our detriment. According to a report released by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2014, 133 billion pounds of the food supply available in the U.S. went uneaten.
The Forest City Weingart Produce Company is hoping to change that and reduce food waste with its new delivery service, Perfectly Imperfect Produce.
Established in 1900, The Forest City Weingart Produce Company, which is based in Cleveland, Ohio, is the oldest produce wholesaler in the region, supplying several grocery stores and restaurants in the area with fresh fruits and vegetables.
"Since we launched the program on May 20, I estimate that we have already redirected nearly 2000 pounds of imperfect produce," says Ashley Weingart, the Director of Communications & Community Outreach for The Forest City Weingart Produce Company. "People are surprised that this product that is considered imperfect is actually still quite pretty and always completely fresh."
The company has been donating (and will continue) 100,000 pounds of oddly-shaped produce every year to local food banks, but now it wants Cuyahoga County residents to have direct access to the fresh surplus, too. Consumers can order their imperfect stash online and walk up to the company's warehouse on Fridays to pick up their order or have their boxes delivered within Cleveland's city limits and surrounding counties. The Forest City Weingart is also working with the City of Cleveland and their Healthy Cleveland initiative to get more Perfectly Imperfect boxes delivered to various community and recreation centers in the city, making it more convenient for locals who can't pay for delivery and don't have transportation.
"We have this enormous wholesale warehouse of food here that we sell in bulk to grocery stores, yet we are surrounded by a food desert," Weingart says. "We wanted to give the people here in Central Cleveland the chance to walk in and get the fresh food they need at a really low price. We always have product here that comes in from farms that has slight imperfections that we need to find a home (or plate) for. So, we connected the dots, and that's where my idea for the boxes came from."
While every small or large box contains your typical produce finds, like oranges, mangoes, berries, pineapples, cucumbers, zucchini, greens, peppers, broccoli, etc., there's a healthy surprise many may not expect to be included.
"We also need to help these folks learn how to use healthy foods to make simple, healthy meals if we want to begin changing habits and improving health," Weingart says. "We hear questions like, 'I've never had a mango. What do you do with it?' That's why each box includes a simple recipe and a preparation idea or cooking technique for one or more fruits or vegetables in that week's box. Sometimes it's as simple as how to cut a mango or a sweet potato. Other times it's a full recipe for a healthy dinner. As a fourth-generation family business, we know a lot about produce, and we want to share our knowledge with people who need more of it."
By providing more information on healthy approaches to eating and giving its customers access to those nutritious foods that may not be as perfect on the outside, The Forest City Weingart is doing their part to combat food waste.
"We can solicit more of these fruits and vegetables from growers. Therein lies the opportunity to help reduce waste," Weingart says. "This program allows us to get fresh food to the folks whose corner store doesn't offer fruits and vegetables. But we're also getting interest from elderly people who can't make it out to the store each week and from busy families who want to help reduce food waste."
As far as plans for expansion outside the City of Cleveland, Weingart thinks it's possible, but only if it's feasible for consumers in other cities.
"While we are presently focused most on increasing our reach in the food deserts here in Cleveland, in the future we may expand the Perfectly Imperfect program to other markets," said Weingart. "I've been thinking about how I can work with other produce wholesalers in markets across the country to allow them to take what we've started and use the Perfectly Imperfect model in their city."
In an Instagram-obsessed world where we're eating with our eyes more than our mouths, that same Perfectly Imperfect model is giving power to the pre-school adage "Don't judge a book by its cover." Because when it comes to blemished produce, it's truly the taste and nutritional benefits that matter—not its cosmetic challenges.