Opinion: Embracing ugly veggies a step in fight against food waste

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Sarah Buckman of Common Ground Food Co-Operative in Urbana, Ill. shows the box of "ugly" fruits and vegetables on Sept. 22, 2016. A staff perk is take whatever is in the box at the end of work and leftover goes to farmers, who also supply the co-op, for use as animal feed and compost.

Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

As someone who does a lot of grocery shopping, I know this as an iron clad fact: At the end of the weekend, the nation’s vegetable bins are full of rejected produce – blemished, deformed, spotted and deemed too ugly for purchase.

It’s produce prejudice of the highest order. In short, lots – and I mean LOTS – of folks have something of a fetish for the perfect… fill-in-the-blank-with-just-about-any fruit and or vegetable.

We poke, we prod, we squeeze, we smell, we examine side by side. Only consummate fruit is deemed worthy of shopping basket status.

But the thing is, there is nothing wrong with the ugly siblings of the produce world.  They sauté, steam, grill, fry, bake, broil and boil just as well as their oh-so-pretty relatives, and they taste the same.

Over the years some grocery stores, knowing our infatuation with perfection, have charged a premium for the Bo Derick 10s of the fruit world.

But there is a growing group of eco-conscious folks among U.S. shoppers who care more about sustainability and issues surrounding hunger and poverty than whether their banana has a blemish.

You often can find these shoppers at Whole Foods. Whole Foods started a pilot program earlier this year selling ugly fruits and partnered with Imperfect Produce to sell ugly veggies on the web.

Because this is also an iron-clad fact; the U.S. wastes staggering amounts of edible food every year.

A 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council report estimates that Americans throw out the equivalent of $165 billion in wasted food annually, and 52 percent of all fruits and vegetables go uneaten.

Suffice it to be said this is a serious problem.  Because all that wasted food contributes to American’s hunger problem.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reports “an estimated 12.7 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2015.”

Enter Walmart and its nearly 4,000 U.S. grocery stores.  The nation’s largest grocery chain has launched a pilot-like program in Florida, where it is intentionally marketing and selling ugly fruits and vegetables in 300 stores.

Walmart Senior Vice President for Global Food Sourcing, Produce and Floral Shawn Baldwin put it this way:

“… we are committed to identifying options to get less than perfect fruit to market and thereby reduce this type of food waste. … Because ugly produce can occur unexpectedly in any growing season or crop, we want to have the systems in place to offer this type of produce whenever it may occur.”

If the program is successful, Walmart could decide to go regional and then eventually national with its blemished produce marketing strategy.  And that would certainly get the attention of the nation’s other food retailers, as Walmart has a huge global supply chain. I think if the company pushes ugly fruit and produce on a national scale, other grocery chains would follow.

That’s not to say there are not headwinds. Some in the eco-conscious crowd won’t set foot in Walmart due to perceived social justice shortcomings, such as labor issues and wage violations. And U.S. shoppers would need a produce attitude adjustment.

Perhaps they can take a page from European consumers. Supermarkets in France, Germany, Austria, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Finland and Australia celebrate selling ugly veggies as a way to reduce food waste, and their customers are all in.

Imagine one day waking up and discovering the U.S. tossing its vanity for produce into the landfill in favor for embracing ugly duckling fruits and vegetables in all their glory. That would be something to celebrate.


About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch

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