Most of the world is aghast over the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables being tossed in the garbage due to superficial imperfections. Grocery stores say that no one will buy ugly food. Guess what – this is simply not true. What it really boils down to is this: no one will pay premium prices for it. There’s proof that a lot of people will buy ugly food – in the US, the UK and in Europe. And there are investors willing to buy shares in a company that sells them.
First of all, expired-date foods are different. It’s not fresh produce, but processed in some way. Even milk is processed, or we’d still be buying it in the state it comes out of the cow – with butterfat intact. But “expired food” stores do carry produce too, and now there are two of them on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
Grocer Fresh is NOT Fresh
Fresh produce is purchased in season from local growers at the farmers market, or picked in your own garden. Grocery store produce is grown for shelf life, picked green, shipped long distance, and gas ripened. Something that traveled thousands of miles after harvest, and then distributed from a central warehouse before it makes it to the stock room cooler at your local market is definitely not fresh. It can only be labeled as such because it’s in a raw, unfrozen state.
Doug Rauch, who opened the real world’s first outdated food grocery store, told ABC news in an interview last summer not long after the Daily Table opened near Boston:
“… most grocers want bananas that are still green so they ripen at home for the customer. So if they’re starting to turn yellow, they won’t ship them to a grocer. If they can’t get rid of them, they’ll throw them in a dumpster. We’re able to collect bananas that are beautiful Chiquita bananas, but they’re one stage closer to ripeness. They’re not ripe yet, they’re just closer to ripeness.”
That is truly wasteful. They’re not ugly food at all, or even slightly imperfect. All the other produce gets much the same treatment, or worse. Like the apples no store will buy, because they’re not as large as they’d like them to be. Perfectly good apples without blemishes, but consumers won’t pay as much for smaller apples, so standard grocery stores don’t want them.
Some fruit and vegetable harvests never leave the farm. Perfectly edible food, packed with good nutrition, and great flavor the grower has no choice but to compost, or plow under. Dana Gunders, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells the New York Times:
“The main reason that food doesn’t get harvested is because it will not meet shelf-life requirements.”
How they arrive at such a determination before picking the crop and storing it for a few months can only be guessed at. Whatever the reason, this doesn’t make it ugly food either.
What Food Shortage?
Six billion pounds of produce fails to meet grocer standards in the US every year, and 40% of the food produced in this country is thrown away. It’s not much different in the rest of the developed world. We don’t have an impending food shortage. We have a food glut. There is absolutely no reason for anyone in this country to go hungry – whether they can pay top dollar for healthy food, or not. But 1/6 of Americans go hungry. And plenty who are forced to pay top dollar are more than happy to purchase these unjustly labeled ugly or blemished fruits and vegetables at a savings.
Apparently, 99.98% of food wholesalers and retailers are from a different planet. They don’t get it. They don’t understand that the thousands of people who can only get part-time employment, or are working full-time-but-underemployed need affordable food. Farmers with a harvest need consumers to buy their food. Otherwise, what’s the point of any of it?
Hungry Harvest Gets It
Three guys in Maryland have built a business that sells ugly fruit and vegetables to consumers. They’ve got a customer base of about 3,000 that take weekly delivery of in-season produce 6 months of the year, and the deliveries don’t stop when winter sets in. From November to June they just go a bit farther afield to supply their eager clients with fresh foods that for one reason or another is rejected by the grocery industry.
Not only are they making money, and steadily growing, for every bag purchased, they donate fresh food to the needy. And there are investors interested in getting in on the action. After appearing on Shark Tank, CEO Evan Lutz in January, the company got $100,000 in funding from celebrity investor Robert Herjavec. Giving a 10% stake without considering other offers could have taken an opposite direction, but it proved to be the perfect move teaming up with the savvy founder of Herjavec Group, a global IT security firm. The ideas and guidance that came with the deal have made Hungry Harvest extremely profitable. The TV appearance infused them with new customers before the segment finished airing too.
To date they’ve reclaimed 500,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables destined for the dumpster, and donated 189,000 pounds of food to those in need – and the company is only about 2 years old. Their delivery area exploded after Shark Tank: Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and they’re planning to expand to New York City, Pittsburgh, and Richmond in 2016.
Imperfect Produce Gets It
Yes, there are more than one of these enterprises attempting to stop the waste. This one is a San Francisco are start-up, where produce quality is even more critical than on the East Coast, but selling “cosmetically challenged” produce is proving to be catching on there too.
“In America, 1 in 5 fruits and vegetables grown don’t fit grocery stores’ strict cosmetic standards.”
It’s another 3-man team that gathers most of what goes into customer’s weekly box for home delivery farm direct, though at times they have to finish them off with things gleaned from the farmers market. They find that not all consumers are ready to embrace ugly food, but enough of them realize that it’s just as good as the fruits and vegetables sold in stores. Each new convert sends more business, just as it happens for Hungry Harvest, word of mouth continues to build the size of their customer base.
The start-up funding came from a crowdfunding campaign on Indie Go Go last May that landed them 103% of their goal. The Imperfect Produce company’s #loveuglyfood campaign is definitely fun, and catching attention far and wide. Did they copy Hungry Harvest? It doesn’t look like it. The team met in the solid waste business with a shared disgust at the tons of fruits and vegetables they saw constantly dumped into landfills, and decided someone had to do something about ceasing the senseless addition to greenhouse gases this causes.
Love Ugly Food
It’s certainly a lot more interesting than fruits and veggies that are all identical. It also used just as much energy to grow as those oversize, cookie cutter versions waxed to increase the perfection perception grocery stores peddle. If anyone is to blame for the obsession it is them, for what they advertise instills the definition of what good food is.
If you’re going to have an obsession, it shouldn’t be plastic perfection. How inorganic, and totally unnatural.
True beauty isn’t skin deep – it goes all the way to the bone.