What makes an ugly fruit or vegetable? The food we see in the aisles, on the shelves of our supermarkets, is but a portion of what is produced at farm level. The rest is discarded before it even leaves the farm because it does not conform to the market's beauty standards. Food retailers sell produce in line with the common perception of what makes a quality product, measured by it's looks, colour, and size, but where does all the so called ugly food go? Often, it's jettisoned straight from the world's garbage chutes and dumped directly into landfill sites.
However, it seems there are better ways to deal with our perpetual stream of waste. From up-and-coming food management startups to relaxing our food beauty standards, the last few months have seen a number of initiatives concerned with reducing the waste of perfectly edible, if only a bit ugly, food.
Here are some examples:
2014 was the EU year against food waste. Fighting at the forefront of this campaign was France. The French National Assembly voted unanimously to pass a law which prohibits grocery stores from throwing away unsold food that's safe to eat, instead forcing retailers to donate it to charities or for use as animal feed. The supermarket chain Intermarché also started selling misshapen produce at discounted prices, and launched an advertising campaign to support the consumption of ugly fruit and vegetables.
Inspired by the French initative's success, many European countries have followed suit. Coop Sweden recently announced it will begin to sell ugly fruit and veg at a reduced price in selected shops to curb food waste. They estimate up to 30% of food produce is discarded before it even reaches the shelves, simply because of appearance. An Axfood discount food store will also be inaugurated in Stockholm this autumn in collaboration with Stockholm Stadsmission. Here, prices will be down 70% percent compared to regular grocery stores, but shoppers will need a membership card to prove they are in greater need of discounted food.
Isabel Soares has found an innovative way to siphon rejected Fruta Feia (ugly fruit) into an alternative market, "to break the dictatorship of aesthetics", she says, which results in the waste of 30% of edible food. Fruta Feia Cooperative buys local produce from Portughese farms, unwanted by conventional retailers, and sells them at fixed delivery points in Lisbon. The cooperative provides its consumers with two options for buying produce: a small box of 3-4kg of 7 assorted products for 3.5 euro, or a larger box of 6-8kg of 8 assorted products for 7 euro. The aim of the project is to combat market inefficieny by changing consumption patterns, hamper the ethical and environmental consequences of a rigid market, and revamp what it means to be beautiful, or rather, edible.
Below Ms. Soares' speech at MAD4
Imperfect,an Oakland-based startup, delivers a box of "cosmetically challenged" food directly into American homes. Veteran food entrepreneurs Ben Simon and Ben Chesler raised $38,120 (103% of the total funds requested) through the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo: sufficient for a six-month pilot programme through the end of the year in Oakland and Berkeley. But the two Bens have plans of expanding to the East-coast and, perhaps, nationally. Their service offers a weekly 10-15 pound box of assorted, seasonal, ugly produce from California farms at 30% less than grocery store prices. Imperfect is also negotiating with a major West-coast retailer (as of yet unnamed) to set up stalls of "cosmetically challenged" fruit and vegetables in its product aisles. The ugly fruit and veg will be stacked next to their good-looking (and more expensive) counterparts, for shoppers to make a socially aware choice.
Canada also tackles the issue of food waste management as Loblaw Ltd is stacking misshapen apples and potatoes in its Real Canadian, No Frills, and Maxi Stores across Ontario and Quebec. The goal of No Name Naturally Imperfect is a threefold return: lowering the cost of healthy food options, improving revenue for struggling farmers, and combatting food waste. Odd-looking products will be discounted by 30% to promote sales as there are no significant differences in quality or taste with their more attractive equaivalents. Apples and potatoes will be used to gauge the success of the initiative, with plans for a national rollout by the end of the year. North of $31 billion worth of food is wasted each year in Canada (Value Chain Management International report, December 2014) as unsightly produce is discarded because of its 'poor aesthetic appeal'.
Smaller initatives like the Culinary Misfits Cafe' in Berlin have also shown a keen interest to curtail the inefficient disposal of imperfect farm produce. Lea Brumsack and Tanja Krakowski began their creative food-culture partnership in 2012 catering for events, and finally opened their own cafe' in July last year. The pair of designer-chefs use locally sourced "misfits" to create original vegetarian dishes, to maintain a healhty and fair food culture, and to combat "product-lookism". The rural-style interior of the locale shows a strong emphasis on design, in harmony with the products used in the dishes: because misfits are - actually - deliciously beautiful.