Cosmetically Challenged Produce

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The United States throws away 30-40% of its food supply or about 20 pounds of food per person per month. This waste occurs at every step of the food supply chain – from the farmer who throws away misshapen vegetables to the consumer throwing away leftovers.

It turns out a large amount of this food waste has to do with consumer’s perceptions of a “good” fruit and vegetables. That’s right, our image obsessed culture extends to our produce! We expect perfectly shaped and colored foods. Our shopping impulse is to reach for the round, firm, deep-red apple and ignore the slightly less shiny one sitting right next to it. For example, tomato farmers focus on growing not the tastiest tomatoes, but the tomatoes with the most well formed shape. The end result is flavorless, but round tomatoes from the supermarket.

Farmers know that the differently shaped and colored fruit and vegetables are perfectly nutritious, and, in the case of the tomato at least, tastier, but are less likely to sell. As a result, these fruits and vegetables get thrown away, and contribute to food waste.

A few companies are looking to change the “ugly” produces’ direction to the trash can. Last summer, a French supermarket, Intermarché, launched a successful campaign to sell these “inglorious fruits and vegetables”. Their comedic campaign of speeches provided motivation to neglected fruits and vegetables to be proud of their abilities and nutrition content. Intermarché reported that overall store traffic increased 24% and an average of 2600 pounds – or 2600 apples—of otherwise unsellable produce were sold in the first two days of their campaign. In the United States, a startup called Imperfect Produce is selling these fruits and vegetables at a discounted price, and trying to reach low-access communities in the process. Selling these fruits and vegetables at a discount is a great way to reduce our food waste as a nation, normalize the consumption of “less-than-perfect” foods, and reach people who find the cost of most fruits and vegetables prohibitive.

The National Good Food Network is hosting a webinar on the opportunities and challenges of cosmetically imperfect produce. This is a great way to learn about a novel attempt to reduce our food waste and promote health food procurement.

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