Written by Amanda Maher
It’s a startling paradox: in the U.S., roughly 40 percent of food is thrown away before it has the chance to be sold or eaten—the equivalent of throwing away a Rose Bowl Stadium full of food every day. Yet at the same time, one in six Americans has no access to healthy or affordable food; nearly 50 million Americans live in food insecure households.
This paradox not only creates public health and environmental impacts, but also economic ones.
The direct economic consequences to producers of food waste run about $165 billion in the U.S. each year. Supermarkets alone lose an estimated $15 billion annually in unsold fruits and veggies.
Food that could otherwise supply low-income or food-insecure households is thrown away. Faced with limited access to healthy, affordable foods, many people, particularly those in inner city neighborhoods or food deserts, must buy cheap, energy-dense foods to stave off hunger. These foods are high in calories but low in nutrition, and they’re contributing to obesity rates that are now at record highs. Food insecurity has also been linked to higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression and poor mental health.
Environmentally, food waste contributes to 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere unnecessarily, according to a report by the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
The trouble is consumers have become accustomed to expecting their tomatoes to be perfectly round, their cucumbers only slightly curved, and their bananas unblemished. These expectations have driven up the costs of fresh produce and exacerbated the problem of food waste.
That’s why a new crop of companies is on a mission to get people to eat misshapen, deformed and strange-looking fruits and vegetables. In what has become an international campaign, the “Ugly Fruit” movement challenges consumers to rethink how they view produce.
Social entrepreneurs like Ben Simon and Claire Cummings have been at the forefront of these efforts.
Still in college at the time, Simon was eating at the dining hall when he realized how much food was being thrown away by cafeteria staff at the end of the night. He and a few classmates went on to create the Food Recovery Network, an organization that donates food that would be wasted at institutions like colleges and universities to local food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and similar programs aimed at combating hunger. The Food Recovery Network has expanded to include 150 chapters in just four years.
But he wasn’t done just yet. Simon eventually moved on from the nonprofit organization to launch a new food recovery concept: Imperfect Produce. The California-based company packages “ugly” produce for customers at a 30 to 50 percent discount. For just $12, Imperfect’s customers receive boxes of 10 to 15 pounds of fresh produce. Customers living in food deserts can purchase that same box for only $8.
“With Imperfect, we are showing the world the true beauty of ugly produce,” Simon told Alternet. “We are taking this unloved fruit and wrapping it in a lovable brand.” So far, there’s no lack of demand. More than 500 customers signed up in the first five weeks and the company was on pace to distribute 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of ugly produce each week by the end of 2015.
Meanwhile, Claire Cummings is doing her part to combat food waste by teaming up with Bon Appetit Management Company, which operates more than 650 cafes in 33 states. In an effort to identify ways for Bon Appetit to support food recovery, Cummings helped to launch a program called Imperfectly Delicious Produce (IDP). IDP has created partnerships with growers across the country that supply Bon Appetit with blemished or otherwise “ugly” produce that would end up in a landfill if it weren’t for the program. Bon Appetit then uses that produce to supply its cafes.
The Daily Table is a Boston-based grocery story that uses a similar concept. Founded by Doug Rouch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, the inner city grocery store provides low-income families with quality food at a discounted price. Eggs, for instance, are just $1.29 a dozen and bananas are $0.29 a pound. The nation’s first fully nonprofit grocery store, Daily Table sources its food largely through donations from larger grocery stores of items that are nearing expiration but are all still perfectly healthy.
“Daily Table’s designed around reaching that part of the population that food banks don’t normally get to reach,” Rauch told CBS News. “The working poor, people that wouldn’t go to a soup kitchen or pantry.”
At Daily Table, ugly fruits and vegetables are used by an in-house team of chefs to create grab-and-go prepared meals that are offered at prices similar to what inner city residents would find at fast food chains, but the meals are significantly healthier. If Rauch can prove the model is sustainable, he’s already stated he will look to expand the concept to other inner city neighborhoods—in Boston and beyond.
Not only are these “Ugly Fruit” efforts helping to mitigate the environmental and health issues associated with food waste, but they are also helping to build a more sustainable and equitable food economy.