Food waste is a real problem in the United States. USDA estimates that 30-40 percent of food is thrown away each year, translating to extra 133 billion pounds of trash in landfills. (1) That’s $161 billion worth of food each year.
In 2015, USDA teamed with the US Environmental Protection Agency to battle this growing problem. They set a goal to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030.
One of the ways to do that is the ugly food movement that tries to battle this issue and get people to buy produce that may not be so pleasing to the eye. This food doesn’t lack in the taste and nutrition department, so there is no need why it shouldn’t find its way to the table.
What Is Ugly Produce Movement?
We have all walked around the produce section in Whole Foods, wondering how they manage to make all fruits and vegetables look so perfect. Well, the answer is modern farming practices and selection. That’s right, all good looking produce is selected, and that’s what you can find in the store or at the farmers’ market.
But, what happens with the ugly fruits and vegetables that didn’t make the cut? Well, they end up as animal feed, fertilizing agents, some other product, or food waste in a landfill.
The ugly food movement wants to change that. They believe that a bruised peach or irregularly-shaped carrots are just as good as their perfect equivalents sold in the supermarket. Besides the aesthetics, there is no reason in the world to throw this food away.
The idea is that buying this food from farmers would prevent their losses, and the ugly produce could be sold at the stores, farmers’ markets, or shipped directly to you at a lower price. That way, everybody’s winning. Farmers are selling more produce, and lower-income families can afford to buy boxes of fresh produce and enjoy a healthier diet full of fruits and vegetables.
But is it all so wonderful as it sounds?
Is Imperfect Produce a Good Way to Control Food Waste?
There are several ugly produce companies like Misfits Market, Hungry Harvest, Imperfect Produce, and Full Harvest. In fact, the ugly food movement start-ups received over $100 million in funding across the United States several years in a row. (2) They implement systems that can significantly help our food industry.
Ugly Food Movement sounds great on paper, and the companies see themselves as the good guys. “We see ourselves as the Robin Hood figure here. We’re the aggregator of food waste… We’re investing in the pipeline between farms and food banks,” said Abhi Ramesh, the CEO of Misfits Market.
But not everyone agrees.
Supply Chain Problems
One of the most vocal skeptics about the ugly produce food movement is crop scientist Sarah Taber. She highlights that this food movement may have good intentions, but it doesn’t address the real source of food problems in the US. It’s the households, restaurants, and stores that are wasting the most food, and this movement addresses only a small part of the whole equation.
And indeed, if you look at the percentage of waste accumulated throughout the food supply chain, you’ll see that 43% comes from households and 40% from businesses like grocery stores and restaurants. (4) In contrast, farms are only responsible for 16% of overall wastage. However, that’s still a considerable amount, and we should aim to lower that number.
A North Carolina State University researcher, Lisa Johnson, pinpoints that it’s vital to distinguish between food loss and waste. Food loss refers to farm-grown produce that can’t be sold in a grocery store for any reason.
Food waste occurs in the food supply chain after a considerable amount of time and energy is invested into harvesting, packing, storing, and transporting crops. That’s why it is more important to address produce waste, and according to critics, the ugly food movement isn’t doing that.
Secondary Market Options
Although ugly fruits and vegetables may not go to the produce aisle in Whole Foods, there are still markets for them. For instance, farmers sell apples to applesauce producers or tomatoes to salsa manufacturers. There are secondary markets like these all over the US, and that’s why some critics point out that ugly produce companies are another unnecessary link in the supply chain.
However, it’s fair to say that there are companies that employ a different business model. For instance, Full Harvest connects farmers and other companies interested in buying their imperfect produce and leftovers. They use it to make juices and other processed products that appeal to consumers.
Feeding the Underprivileged
There are many people without access to affordable fresh produce. Ramesh highlights the importance of providing services to them: “Our big challenge from a business perspective is how we figure out a way to service them in an economically feasible way.”
However, some critics state that these services are only available in certain areas. The people who use them are mostly wealthier customers who want to feel like they are doing something good for the environment.
Ramesh assures that that their customers are mostly older people and families on a fixed income. “They may not be on food stamps, but they end up falling into a socioeconomic bucket where they need access to affordable produce,” he adds.
Sending the Wrong Message
Some people fear that the ugly food movement may have a counterproductive effect as it can stimulate farmers to grow more crops, resulting in overproduction. While there are currently no studies that can support this hypothesis, this is definitely a valid concern.
On the other hand, buying imperfect produce may get consumers to start thinking about their actions. People are more and more interested in their environmental impact, and this food movement can stimulate people to minimize their fruit and veg waste.
The Answer to Minimizing Food Waste
The problem of food waste is very complex and deeply rooted in our food system. There is a food recovery hierarchy that proposes the best approach to solving this puzzle. (5) Source reduction and feeding the hungry are some of the things that have priority. Some analyses are very detailed, and they talk about different approaches that could be beneficial. (6)
For instance, some countries in the European Union and around the world have unique laws that minimize waste. They include donating foods about to expire to food banks and shelters instead of throwing them away.
Gregory Baker, one of the researchers at Santa Clara University, highlights the importance of various approaches to battling this problem. He pinpoints that there is no unique solution and that we must consider the type of crop, region, consumer education, and other factors.
It is a group of start-ups that want to normalize buying and eating imperfect produce. They want to change the stigma that all fruits and veggies must have a perfect appearance.
This movement is important because it can help small food producers minimize their loss and make fresh produce available to more people.
Straight, bent, bruised, cut, whole – we simply love our veggies. We strongly believe that every vegetable is beautiful once cooked right, which is why we advise you to include more greens in your everyday diet.
Yes. While they are not the whole solution, they can play an important part. The best you can do is try to minimize the amount of food that goes uneaten in your home and help our planet.
So, Should You Use Ugly Food Companies?
The issue with producing waste is present around the world, but it’s even worse in the US. The solutions require different approaches, educating consumers, and changing industry practices to achieve the best results.
The ugly food movement has its positive sides, and while there may be a few problems, it is definitely a good start. So, if you want to use the services of these companies, go ahead. If not, there are plenty of other options. However, you should rethink your buying habits and try to minimize the amount of food that goes in the trash bin at the end of the day.