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The inner beauty of ugly produce

There is a movement underway to use more of the 'ugly' fruit that currently gets discarded. (Photo Credit: Pete)

There is a movement underway to use more of the ‘ugly’ fruit that currently gets discarded. (Photo Credit: Pete)

Every year on October 16, people around the globe mark World Food Day, a day of action against hunger. While a lot has been done to reduce the number of people suffering from extreme hunger, the problem is still one of the most urgent global development challenges. Eating ugly produce could be part of the solution.

The world produces more than enough food to go around; still, shocking amounts of it go to waste. Recovering just half of what is lost or wasted could feed the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

You’ve probably heard the statistics, but they bear repeating:

  • Up to one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted
  • This amounts to about 1.3 billion tons of food globally per year
  • An estimated 25-40 percent of all food grown, processed and transported in the United States alone will never end up being consumed
  • In 2010, food waste cost Americans $161.6 billion

As world leaders came together at the United Nations General Assembly last week to agree to new goals for global development, one of the commitments they made was to cut food waste in half over the next 15 years.

The declaration part is easy. The more important question is, how will this be done?

Federal initiatives in the U.S. include minimizing food waste in school meals programs, updating safe-storage and date-labelling information and making greater efforts to recover or recycle food removed from commerce, among others.

Along with these governmental moves, new innovative private initiatives are working to raise awareness, circulate food that might otherwise be destined for landfills, and inspire diners to think twice before tossing leftovers.

When he’s not at work as a solid waste specialist for the Castro Valley Sanitary District in California’s Bay area, Jordan Figueiredo runs the @UglyFruitAndVeg campaign, one of the Internet’s main advocacy vehicles in the fight against food waste.

He uses Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, to call attention to produce that is rejected by large grocers due to size, shape or color. He considers “ugly produce” the sustainable opportunity and challenge of our time.

“It’s such a huge problem [26 percent left uneaten before the store] and it’s connected to water, energy, hunger,” he says. “This issue is also completely new to 99.9 percent of Americans and that’s why I wanted to bring it to light.”

The @UglyFruitandVeg social media accounts reflect images of imperfect produce that resembles people or animals or other produce. Given the oversaturation of ‘food porn’ images that fill social media streams, television screens and magazine pages every day, it’s conceivable that many consumers are not aware of the many shapes and forms that vegetables and fruit come in.

“Produce is art,” he says. “It’s amazingly nourishing. It should be celebrated.” By showing lovable images of outcast fruit and vegetables, he says people understand the issue better and want to celebrate rather than waste produce.

As so often happens, North America trails behind Europe in embracing its love for ugly fruit and vegetables. France’s third-largest supermarket chain, Intermarché, launched a campaign in March 2014 to get consumers to see the beauty of ugly produce. Television and print ads hailed the attractiveness of “the grotesque apple,” “the failed lemon,” “the disfigured eggplant,” “the ugly carrot” and the “unfortunate clementine.”

One aisle of a store just outside Paris was devoted to ‘inglorious’ produce and sold at a 30 per cent discount. The results were impressive: 21 million people were reached by the campaign in one month; Mentions of Intermarché on social networks during the first week of the campaign increased by 300 percent; overall store traffic increased 24 percent. Five of the store’s main competitors launched a similar offer shortly after the campaign launched.

Back in the United States, other small-scale initiatives aim to put more imperfect produce into the food chain through direct distribution. Evan Lutz started a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program with recovered food while he was a university student, selling ‘surplus’ fruits and vegetables to other students on a weekly basis, in collaboration with an organization called the Food Recovery Network.

In May 2014, the initiative was transitioned to Hungry Harvest, a for-profit social enterprise that works with local farms and wholesalers in Washington D.C. and Maryland to recover surplus produce, hand-select the quality fruits and vegetables into balanced variety bags, and deliver it to subscriber’s doors.

“For every bag we deliver to a customer, we donate a healthy meal to a community member in need,” says Lutz. He explains that his model is a convenient twist on a traditional CSA program because he charges by the week instead of up-front for the season. Hungry Harvest also delivers to the customer’s door instead of making them drive to a pick-up site.

This imperfect apple could have a second life as a Fruitcycle apple chip. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Bennett)

This imperfect apple could have a second life as a Fruitcycle apple chip. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Bennett)

“All my life, I wanted to become a social entrepreneur,” says Lutz, who graduated from University of Maryland last year. “I didn’t just want to start a business that made a profit, but one that helped change the world for the better in the process.”

That passion for social change is shared by Elizabeth Bennett, who founded Fruitcycle, which she describes as “a social enterprise that makes healthy snacks and provides second chances.”

The 30-year-old entrepreneur got the idea for Fruitcycle after visiting a U-pick peach orchard in 2013. “I knew food waste was an issue, but was nevertheless astonished by the thousands of pounds of delicious, nutritious, beautiful local produce on the ground going to waste.”

Inspired by volunteer work with food banks in Washington D.C., she set about trying to find a better way to recover fruit before it went to waste. “I was trying to create a solution to the paradox that we waste 40 per cent of our food while 1 in 6 Americans go hungry.”

Fruitcycle employs formerly incarcerated or homeless women and primarily uses produce that would otherwise be wasted. Products currently include apple chips and kale chips and soon the company will be launching a line of preserves and syrups.

“Nature isn’t perfect,” she says, “and the two-legged carrot, the dimpled apple and their friends are just as delicious and nutritious than their perfect counterpart.”

5 simple tips for cutting down on food waste

  • Shop wherever ugly produce is sold. Buy the ‘ugly’ foods from the grocery store or, if there are none, ask your grocery store for them. “It might take a while for stores to jump on, but we need to show retailers there’s a demand for these products,” says Elizabeth Bennett.
  • Understand the difference between use by, sell by, and best by dates. “None of these (except on baby food) are federally regulated or indicate food safety,” Bennett says. “You can eat many foods safely past the date on their package.” See eatbydate.com for more information.
  • Eat the oldest things in your fridge first. “I have started putting a list on the outside of my fridge of things that need to get used up soon, so they don’t get forgotten about in the back,” says Bennett.
  • Support small, local farms and businesses instead of larger chains. “Local businesses produce much less waste,” says Evan Lutz.
  • You can also participate in the time-honored tradition of gleaning. “Gleaners go out in groups to recover food that is left on farms (for many reasons, ugly being the main one) and donate it to those in need,” explains Jordan Figueiredo.

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