Nearly 40% of food in the United States gets wasted according to the National Resource Defense Council, but a large portion of the food that's getting thrown away is completely edible — it just doesn't look perfect. Fruits and vegetables that are misshapen or discolored won't ever make it to your kitchen counter, even if you wanted them to. That's because 26% of all produce is thrown away before farmers sell it to grocery stores, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
This egregious waste happens despite the fact that the USDA found that 48.1 million people in the U.S. qualified as "food insecure" in 2014. It happens despite the fact that this food ends up rotting in landfills, causing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. But a growing movement has begun a campaign to end the waste of edible food, and they're starting by changing perceptions of what a perfect fruit or veggie looks like.
Redefining food beauty: Food Activist Jordan Figueiredo started the Ugly Fruit and Veg Instagram account a year and half ago to show how absurd it is that these quirky, imperfect foods are being thrown out. Figueiredo's campaign now has 130,000 followers across various social media channels, and they're growing every month. During the day, he's a social waste specialist for the Castro Valley Sanitary District in California, but he noticed that much of his work preventing food waste focused on cleaning it up after it had already been wasted, not on preventing food from going to waste in the first place.
"All this food that's going to waste that, as an industry, we're content to compost. We're not focusing enough on solutions to prevent waste from the start," he said in a phone interview. "Rather than shaming people, it's celebrating food in a way that reels people in. That's why social media works so well."
The accounts highlight how these foods aren't inedible just because they don't fit the picture perfect model of what a fruit or veggie looks like. Figueiredo said he draws on the body positivity movement to channel similar ideas — just because something looks different, doesn't mean it's worse.
"Most of the stuff that gets classified as ugly or unsellable isn't," he said. "It's not ugly, it's just misshapen or deformed."
Figueiredo's social media campaign aims to bring awareness to consumers that might not realize imperfect foods are getting wasted, but efforts to prevent ugly food waste are moving from awareness to action. One of the main reasons these foods are thrown out in the first place is because grocery stores won't buy them from farmers, claiming the consumers won't buy them in grocery stores. To change the model, grocery stores would have to start buying the uglies and selling them in stores. But if consumers don't have the option to buy uglies, the problem remains stuck in a pattern of waste.
"We have unconscious consumers. We have unconscious eaters," Culinary nutritionist Stefanie Sacks said in a phone interview. "It's an absolute lack of consciousness around food, whether it's what people are choosing to eat, how people are choosing to eat, and what people are choosing to do with their food."
Providing a market for uglies: Ben Simon, co-founder and CEO of Imperfect Produce, was convinced that consumers would buy ugly fruits and vegetables — if they were given the chance. This assumption led him to create a home delivery service where people get fresh ugly fruits and veggies on a weekly or biweekly basis.
"We wanted to be able to show grocery stores that this is every day produce that people are willing to buy," Simon said in a phone interview. "The quickest way to get that to people was the direct-to-consumer, subscription delivery model."
After nine months, Imperfect Produce has about 3,500 customers in the San Francisco and East Bay Area. Simon and his company get the produce at about a 50% reduced price directly from farmers, and then sell those items to consumers at a 30% reduced price, making a profit off of the margin. Simon and his co-founders, Ron Clarke and Ben Chesler, hope to expand the market across the country, aiming to be in every major American city in the next three to five years.
But getting uglies in actual grocery stores is another major hurdle this movement needs to overcome before 26% of produce wasted reaches 0%. Sacks teamed up with Figueiredo to start a Change.org petition asking Walmart and Whole Foods to sell uglies in their stores. Over 111,00 people signed the petition. While Walmart has yet to respond, Whole Foods launched a pilot program with Imperfect Produce selling ugly baby potatoes and mandarins in five northern California stores.
"It's a good message to send," Figueiredo said. "They are the only big grocer in the U.S. that is selling it right now, and it's a really small pilot."
Whole Foods and Imperfect Produce have been selling uglies for over a month, and they're going quickly. After only a week and a half, the stores had completely sold out of the mandarins, Simon said. Figueiredo hopes that if grocers recognize these products sell, more large grocers will start carrying uglies.
And just as the body positive movement has been clapping back at idealized notions of beauty peddled by the media, Figueiredo hopes the ugly food movement will encourage people to rethink their fixation on photogenic food.
"We have too much perfection-based marketing in our society, and this is just another way it's permeated something else: people, now food," Figueiredo said.