Eat Your (Ugly) Fruits and Vegetables: Normalizing Imperfect Produce

Up to 40 percent of the food produced in the United States is never eaten.

At the same time, one in every eight Americans struggles to put enough food on the table. Though the nation celebrates itself as the “land of the plenty,” the United States in fact suffers from major interrelated crises in the areas of hunger, malnutrition, and climate change; as such, the self-proclaimed title fails to convey the reality of America as a land of egregious waste.  

This destructive reality exists in part due to the fact that one fifth of all fruits and vegetables fail to conform to cosmetic industry standards, destined for the dump before it even arrives at the grocery store. In an effort to combat such wasteful practices, a movement embracing “ugly produce” is mounting in public support. The cause highlights excessive food waste as lying at the intersection of sustainability, public health, and overconsumption issues, and criticizes consumer expectations as not only unrealistic, but also extremely wasteful and linked to a larger obsession with the “cult of perfection.”

In an effort to shift the nature of the produce market, such critique has initiated two major forms of public response: the creation of both non-profit organizations and for-profit companies. Imperfect Produce, Misfit Markets, Fair Foods Inc., and Phat Beets Produce are just a few examples of companies or organizations which have centered their focus around the utilization of ugly produce. While some have entered the market to facilitate the donation process to soup kitchens, others have chosen to sell ugly fruits and vegetables in bulk through subscription boxes at prices lower than those of aesthetically pleasing produce available at grocery stores. This stark difference in opinion of how to best tackle the food waste issue has sparked significant debate, as arguments for food justice clash with an attempt to commodify ugly produce. Though such debates are tempting, they fail to make true progress in solving the larger issue at hand–one that is deeply rooted in the problematic practices of commercialism and resulting consumer expectations.

American consumerism, as it manifests itself in our food consumption habits, is part of a macroscopic and potentially irreversible trend toward the tragedy of the commons. This refers to the classic economic concept which holds that individuals will act in their own self interest and contrary to the common good, in turn depleting a shared resource and harming general public well being. As such, only with the collaboration between the two aforementioned approaches to tackling food waste will it be possible to significantly address our problematic food expectations; it is crucial to do this in a manner which spans beyond rhetoric and truly works to mitigate and resolve the resulting environmental and public health issues.

On the one hand, non-profit organizations aid in addressing the hunger crisis in ways that are associated with our unrealistic produce expectations. A recently published study funded by the US Department of Agriculture found that American consumers waste about 225-290 pounds per year–enough to feed two billion extra people annually. The non-profits that facilitate the donation process are crucial in re-directing this otherwise dumpster-destined produce. Though encouraging or obligating farmers to donate excess ugly produce seems like a straightforward and simple solution, the logistical cost of packaging and transporting this food, with zero opportunity for profit in return, serves as a major barrier which prevents many small-scale farmers from doing so. Nonprofits can therefore stimulate incredibly effective and important impact in this regard, relieving farmers of food waste for free and increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables to those who otherwise could not afford it. Many of these organizations pay particular attention to sourcing their foods from small-scale, independent farmers, in turn also advocating for sustainable and local cultivation as opposed to large-scale and incredibly destructive industrial agriculture. For example, PhatBeets Produce works with small-scale farmers of color and young entrepreneurs to link local farmers with consumers in low-income neighborhoods. Other organizations, such as Capital Area Food Bank, purchase their produce from regional farmers or distributors and circulate the majority to those in need.  

"Only with the collaboration between the two aforementioned approaches to tackling food waste will it be possible to significantly address our problematic food expectations; it is crucial to do this in a manner which spans beyond rhetoric and truly works to mitigate and resolve the resulting environmental and public health issues."

While organizations of this nature alleviate the amount of produce which accumulates in landfills by creating a pipeline between farmers and soup kitchens, it is impossible to ignore the limitations which result from a solely nonprofit driven approach. The ultimate goal in attempting to combat excessive food waste should in fact be to find market value in ugly produce–a shift which demands capitalist support. A variety of companies, such as Imperfect Produce, Misfits Markets, and Hungry Harvest, all source ugly produce from farmers and offer a subscription box service, shipping fresh but imperfect fruit and vegetables for a price significantly below grocery store value. A reality in which there is a demand for ugly produce would benefit both producers and consumers alike; while farmers would require the same amount of resources to produce a now greater profit, consumers in areas with limited access to fresh produce would gain necessary nutrition.

Given such possibilities, there is clearly space, and perhaps even a need, for for-profit companies to remain involved in this field. While critics accuse for-profit companies of “commodifying the need” and in turn undermining the work done by nonprofits, this statement is extremely misleading. Rather than profiting off the poor and redirecting food which would otherwise end up in food banks, as such companies are oftentimes portrayed, the reality is that they are simply commodifying food–food which previous has been denied value. Furthermore, the accusation that for-profit companies take away from produce that otherwise would be redistributed to food banks for free is equally deceiving. According to Feeding America, NRDC and ReFED, there are 20 billion pounds of produce wasted on farms each year–after food banks take what they can. This 20 billion pounds of produce, though perfectly nutritious and safe for consumption, goes to waste because it fails to fit the beauty standards constructed by grocery stores. It is from this 20 billion pounds that for-profits source their produce, selling it in subscription boxes for costs significantly lower than retail price. Some companies, such as Misfit Markets, further work to eliminate food waste by contributing to the donation process as well, sifting through ugly produce and donating what will go bad within the next 24-48 hours and selling what will keep for longer. Given the current movement toward a more socially and environmentally-conscious way of business, there exists a perfect opportunity to shift American consumer expectations. However, without the necessary support and shift in capitalist and consumer culture, the fight for the normalization of imperfect produce does not stand a chance.

In addition to creating a pipeline between farms and food banks and opening up another stream of revenue for farmers who would previously discard this misfit produce, for-profit organizations also address the lack of access to nutritious food which over 30 million Americans located in food deserts,  or areas vapid of healthful whole foods, face. This access issue is linked to high rates of both obesity and malnutrition, in turn responsible for millions of dollars in healthcare spending each year. Despite the assumption that the main audience of these for-profit companies is largely environmentally-conscious millennials, most are in reality cost-conscious families looking to save money on groceries. There is no denying that for-profits provide a significant service which non-profits alone would not be capable of taking on–in fact, many are even taking steps to gain eligibility to accept SNAP benefits. By shipping discounted produce nationwide, companies are creating a legitimate demand and opening up a market for misfit produce–a vital step in shifting consumer expectations and decreasing food waste.

The governments and the general public alike are beginning to realize that they cannot effectively fight hunger, let alone climate change, without reducing food waste, as it accounts for about 8 percent of global climate pollution. According to Project Drawdown, reducing food waste is the third highest-impact action humanity can immediately take to avert the disasters resulting from global warming. Undoubtedly, there is great space for and value in both for-profits and non-profits as they attempt to tackle an issue as massive as ugly produce’s glaring role in food waste. By increasing the accessibility of donations, introducing ugly produce into everyday consumer markets, and infiltrating communities where access to fresh produce has been lacking for generations, a combination of these two efforts’ approaches has the ability to engage the largest and most dedicated audience possible. Though America’s image of how an apple should look like will not change overnight, the collaboration of non-profit and for-profit organizations has the potential to spark a shift in consumer expectations necessary for a significant reduction of excessive food waste.

Photo: “Ugly Fruit

About the Author

Eleni Papapanou '22 is a Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Eleni can be reached at eleni_papapanou@brown.edu

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