Why Everyone Should Embrace The Ugly Food Movement

Four years ago, I asked the head of the produce department at a major grocery chain what I could do to be a more conscious shopper and he said one thing: buy the ugly fruit. Ugly fruit and vegetables taste exactly the same as their more beautiful comrades, but they often never make it to the grocery store, and when they do, they easily end up in the garbage.

Ugly food has been surging to the fore in social media lately as documentaries and even traditional food publications admit that America (and the world) has a food waste problem that extends far beyond the bank.

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According to Sustainable America, a think tank working on food sustainability issues, America wastes approximately 40 percent of its food. It happens at every point of the chain from the farm to the home kitchen (so there isn’t any one obvious place to rest the blame, which means the issue doesn’t have an easy fix). At the same time, some actors have more potential impact than others. Grocery stores are the major target of attention right now due to their immense power to encourage consumers to be less persnickety with their food choices.

Various estimates put the food waste in the average American household at between $1500 and $2275 worth of food per year. Those numbers reverberate through the food production machine in the form of massive water usage and carbon emissions that are for naught. The current drought in California brings into focus the real damage that agriculture can do to the water supply– with lasting effects.

And it’s not just the United States throwing out millions of tons of food that they otherwise used a lot of water to grow each year; most developed countries are just as culpable. After English food waste activist, Tristram Stuart’s Ted talk on the subject in early 2012, the issue has been slowly gaining momentum both in the media and in policy.  (Watch him speak below.) The European Union deemed 2014 the “Year Against Food Waste” and the U.S. is just now catching up. Several marketing ideas are being thrown around to rectify the situation: different countries are using glamorous words like “inglorious”, to avoid the word “ugly.” Some stores in France have even toyed with discounting misshapen produce in order to encourage patrons to buy it.

Famous chef, Dan Barber (of the iconic Blue Hill at Stone Barns), launched a pop-up restaurant called Wast(ed) wherein he made haute cuisine from the cast-offs of other restaurants and suppliers in early 2015. Food and Wine magazine launched the hashtag “#LoveUglyFood” in April 2015 and in less than one month, it has received more than one million impressions on Twitter.  MSNBC made a food waste documentary called “Just Eat it,” which aired in April 2015 on prime time television. The doc featured Tristram Stuart and was followed by a panel discussion led by celebrity chef, Tom Colicchio. (Watch Tristram give a talk about this issue to our friends over at National Geographic, above.)

Adding to the endemic is the fact that food waste statistics in developing countries show a problem similar in scope (40 percent of food is wasted even in place where there’s supposedly “not enough agriculture to feed the population.”) In these countries, bad road-quality and poor storage capacity contribute to the bulk of this loss. According to a recent report for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the food waste of developing countries would be more than enough to feed the world’s 870 million hungry.

Solutions suggested by Sustainable America target the large food losses that occur before produce or grain even gets to market. Their suggestions include improving storage facilities and making new packaging advances.

But the steps that individual consumers can make are a lot simpler than that and can have a lasting impact when practiced consistently. One of the most important ways that consumers can join the ugly food movement is to buy fruit and vegetables with imperfections. Just because an item ends up on the floor of a supermarket does not mean it is going to be purchased and eaten. Imperfect fruit and veg is sorted and thrown out at the store level several times per day.

Changing our standards for produce at the consumer level demonstrates to grocery store buyers that their customer is not too particular for imperfect produce. Right now, if a shipment of produce is aesthetically sub-par, a store will simply send it back. The transit time cuts down on resale possibilities and much of that food will easily go to waste.

Finding uses for and preserving the produce we bring home– and buying only what we can realistically consume– also play a big role here. We often hear the phrase “vote with your fork”– and this is another case where personal responsibility is key. Yes, we vote with our forks– but first, let’s consider voting with our empty trashcans.

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