Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Ugly Produce Gets a Makeover

By Joshua Marx

Like the shy girl in any teenage romance movie who, after removing her glasses and unbraiding her hair, instantly becomes seen as the prom queen she always was by everyone at school, ugly fruits and vegetables are finally getting the praise they deserve.  Even more importantly, people are simply buying and eating more of them.  

Up until recently, perfectly edible fruits and vegetables have been thrown away by grocery stores, food service companies, farmers, and suppliers simply because they possess superficial flaws and imperfections that have been deemed “unfit” for sale.  A 2013 release by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) cites countless staggering statistics about the economic, environmental, and ethical costs of food waste due to “ugly” fruits and veggies.  For the sake of clarification, it is important to note that food waste refers to the intentional discard of edible food.  In short, the UNEP points out inadequacies across the supply chain, from growers all the way to consumers, that contribute to disproportionate food waste in affluent countries, specifically shedding light on the alarming fact that “quality and aesthetic standards lead retailers to reject large amounts of perfectly edible food.”  

The outlandish costs associated with such widespread food waste are a barrage on the conscience of even the most prudent and environmentally-conscious consumer.  For example, the UNEP measures the “Total food wastage for the edible part of [primary product] to 1.3 billion tonnes.”  The report goes on to highlight the carbon footprint left behind by the production of food that is just thrown away, which is estimated at “3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent of GHG released into the atmosphere per year.”  If those two figures don’t shock, perhaps the most dreadful statistic is the amount of water needed to grow food that is just thrown away later.  “The total volume of water used each year to produce food that is lost or wasted,” the report grimly states, “is equivalent than three times the annual flow of Russia's Volga River, or three times the volume of Lake Geneva.”

Across the world, however, sustainability advocates are fighting the food waste battle that has been going on for countless years.  One especially notable campaign has been in the French retailer Intermarche, one of the largest supermarket chains in France, whose “Inglorious Fruits & Vegetables” series has struck a chord with consumers, prompting an upsurge in the purchase and consumption of fruits and vegetables previously thought by retailers to be unfit for sale.  The main marketing push, a video of which can be seen here, was to not only introduce French grocery shoppers to these “ugly” fruits and vegetables at a reduced cost, but to showcase them, thereby altering prevailing attitudes and perceptions.  The initial release of this campaign led to a dramatic increase in store traffic and the purchase of fruits and vegetables overall.  Many retailers across the EU are following suit, with supermarkets in Portugal and the UK pushing “ugly” fruit and vegetable into consumers’ shopping bags.  Even Canada’s Safeway stores are planning a similar concept.  
Locally in Maryland, entrepreneurs and businesses have recognized the untapped market available to them and are aiming to become the middleman between consumers looking to save money and suppliers looking to decrease losses.  One such company, Hungry Harvest, has already made a tremendous impact on the region, recovering 500,000 pounds of food and donating 185,000 to families in need.

The concept, which was thought up by three University of Maryland graduates, closely follows the CSA model with which many farm-to-table enthusiasts are familiar.  Hungry Harvest buys aesthetically unpleasant fruits and vegetables from growers who would otherwise throw it away, pack up variety bags filled with those fruits and vegetables, and deliver them to consumers in the DelMarVA and Philadelphia region.  

Not only does the company work towards ending food waste by collecting food that would go unused, it also saves customers money.  According to the Hungry Harvest website, customers that sign up for the delivery service save an average of $10 over comparable delivery services, such as Peapod.  Hungry Harvest is also interested in reinvesting into the local community.  According to the company’s web page, for every box delivered to one of their customers, they donate 1-2 pounds of fresh produce through their donation partners, monthly free farmer's markets, or directly to needy families.

Ugly fruits and vegetables may not be the prom queen of the produce section yet. With companies such as Hungry Harvest and Intermarche leading the push to eliminate food waste across the world, though, more consumers are sure to follow suit and become critical of their own purchasing habits. Previously thought “ugly” fruit and vegetables may quickly become the apple of many a customer’s eye.