22 July 2018
Vegetable Vanity: Ugly Produce and Sustainability
“Every year some six billion pounds of U.S. fruits and vegetables go unharvested or unsold, often for aesthetic reasons” claims National Geographic journalist Elizabeth Royte (38). Food is one commodity that is wasted at an alarming rate, whether from ridiculous portion sizes at restaurants leading to inordinate amounts of leftovers hitting the trash can or nutritious food that is responsibly grown, but unable to meet the stringent USDA grade to land them on the produce aisle. Unreasonable beauty standards in society have trickled down to the very food people eat. Supply chains judging produce as if the vegetables are walking a beauty pageant runway is having a multi-dimensional impact on consumers, farmers, businesses, and the environment. How can purchasing so-called “ugly produce” impact sustainability?
Food waste is inequitable to the millions of people suffering from hunger around the world. Journalist Jennifer McClellan explains that “according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, fruit and vegetables have the highest waste rate of any food group, some of which is based solely on rigid size and cosmetic standards.” The prospect of purchasing imperfect looking produce at discounted prices would be an attractive option to help low income and hardworking families provide more nutritious food for their families. Making these affordable ugly produce choices available to more people is a valuable step in eradicating hunger and reducing unnecessary food waste. Getting that produce to the market shelves may be a bit of a time consuming process, however. New York Times writer Jennifer Medina reports that “Jordan Figueiredo, a solid waste specialist . . . began a petition asking Walmart and Whole Foods to commit to carrying ugly produce.” Changing the mindset of supermarkets and shoppers, however, can be difficult. On the front lines of the ugly produce movement, Figueiredo has developed a growing social media presence of catchy slogans and photos designed to break the stereotypes surrounding ugly food as he advocates for farmers, stating that they “have a really tough job as it is, and supermarkets make it harder by rejecting so much [of their harvest]” (qtd. in McClellan).
Capturing ugly produce directly from the source can make a huge impact on farmers and the food waste epidemic as well. Instead of crops being left unharvested because they wouldn’t meet the standards to be sold to market, ugly produce can be donated to food banks, sold to restaurants, or sold in bulk to markets with sustainability in mind. As Aoife Boothroyd of Food Magazine reports, “wholesale food business Spade & Barrow [has] developed a holistic approach to their operations . . .which ensures that farmers are able to harvest their entire crop – irrespective of size and shape.” Restaurants and chefs are always in the market for fresh produce, and the quality of ugly produce is in reality not diminished at all when it comes to ingredients for recipes. The reduced price of ugly produce helps those in the restaurant industry as well: “When prices go up we struggle because we can’t just increase our prices. It is far better to get produce directly from the farm” (Boothroyd). The benefits of this practice extend to the farmers as they can sell more of their crops, make more money, and produce less waste all at the same time. To achieve the goal of helping farmers, reducing waste, and making lower priced food available to more consumers, USDA grade requirements may need to be relaxed in the long run to allow farmers to sell more of their crop to grocery retailers. As it stands, “there may be No. 1 and No. 2 [USDA] grades, but hardly anyone is stocking No. 2 in the produce aisle,” (Medina). Strict visual appearance guidelines put in place lead to produce being passed over simply because it is too small, oddly shaped, or has exterior markings that have no effect on the food itself. Most likely, these misfits wind up in the landfills.
Many ugly produce delivery services are cropping up as sustainability practices and food waste reduction begin to take the forefront in business models of the future. The ability to bypass grocery retailers and sell ugly produce directly to consumers is an innovative way to tackle the food waste issue (McClellan). This new market for lower cost produce with cosmetic imperfections is opening the door for the economy to grow and profits to be made for businesses and farmers alike. Non-profits are also booming as programs increasingly acquire, sell, recycle, and/or donate ugly food. As Medina describes, Imperfect Produce and Food Recovery Network are two such businesses delivering ugly produce in the San Francisco area that stemmed from two college students witnessing the vast amount of food waste in the cafeteria (Medina). The opportunities for entrepreneurship in the arena of sustainability will only continue to grow as people become more aware of the consequences of food waste.
The extreme toll food waste takes on the environment reaches far beyond any landfill. Wasted food itself, which rose by 50% between 1974 and 2006, contributes greatly to the saturation of landfills, as well as greenhouse gas production, but there are several consequences that are not as visible as a pile of garbage (Medina). As Royte explains, “producing food that no one eats – whether sausages or snickerdoodles – also squanders the water, fertilizer, pesticides, seeds, fuel, and land needed to grow it. The quantities aren’t trivial” (36). This is another opportunity that businesses have opened their eyes to in trying to tackle sustainability. Utilizing only what is needed, recycling, donating, composting, and converting to clean energy can all contribute to reduction of waste.
Although it may take time and more widespread acceptance, relaxing aesthetic standards and opting to purchase imperfect produce can affect sustainability in a variety of positive ways. Consumers (low income or otherwise) and restaurants can benefit from the availability of more reasonably priced options for fresh, nutritious produce, regardless of its appearance. Farmers can benefit from the opportunity to sell more of what they produce instead of their crops laying waste in the fields or in the landfills. Businesses have an emerging market to grow and thrive in, providing profits for them as well for farmers and consumers. If USDA standards were loosened, these benefits could become more widespread and have an even bigger impact on food waste and sustainability. The amount of food waste can significantly be reduced with equal recognition of ugly produce amongst the beautiful. After all, as the owner of Spade & Barrow claims, “not every carrot can be a supermodel” (Boothroyd).
Boothroyd, Aoife. “Spade & Barrow Achieves Sustainable Business Model through Imperfect Produce.” Food Magazine, 09, 2013. ProQuest, https://ezproxy.bellevuecollege.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.bellevuecollege.edu/docview/1438200212?accountid=35840.
McClellan, Jennifer. “Ugly Fruit and Vegetables Don’t End Up as Food Waste Thanks to these Unusual Pioneers.” Arizona Republic, Dec 26, 2017. ProQuest, https://ezproxy.bellevuecollege.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.bellevuecollege.edu/docview/1980069024?accountid=35840.
Medina, Jennifer. “Getting Ugly Produce onto Tables to Keep it Out of Trash Bins.”New York Times, Nov 24, 2015. ProQuest, https://ezproxy.bellevuecollege.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.bellevuecollege.edu/docview/1735555077?accountid=35840.
Royte, Elizabeth. “Waste Not Want Not.” National Geographic, vol. 229, no. 3, Mar. 2016, pp. 30-55. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.bellevuecollege.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=113337804&site=ehost-live.
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