Could Ugly Vegetables Help You Save Money and Reduce Food Waste?
I love entering a grocery store and seeing bins full of colorful produce. Nature’s bounty in all its beauty, right?
Well, as it turns out, not really. Nature — and its produce — is far from perfect.
And our desire for ravishingly red radishes and adorably round oranges isn’t benign: It means more than six billion pounds of fresh produce a year never make it to the store.
What if, instead, you could buy that “cosmetically challenged” produce — not only preventing enormous amounts of food waste, but also saving money?
In recent years, these questions have begun to percolate, and finally the big guys (thank you, Walmart!) are noticing…
Here’s what you need to know about ugly produce — and why it’s important.
What’s Ugly Produce? And Why Does It Matter?
You may have heard the startling statistic that Americans throw away 40% of our food — $160 billion worth of food — an obscene waste of time, money and resources.
And though you can do your best to combat food waste once you get home, real change must start with our buying habits.
“Farms are actually the number one place where food is going to waste in America,” explains Ben Simon, co-founder of Imperfect, a distributor of ugly produce.
“It’s estimated about 20% of all fruits and veggies grown in the country don’t make it off the farm,” he says.
Mostly, Simon says, due to “cosmetic issues.” Meaning they’re not pretty enough for us to buy — a standard we, the consumers, have set at grocery stores.
“It’s all about blemish-free produce,” one produce distributor told The Guardian. “What happens in our business today is that it is either perfect, or it gets rejected.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t care that much about how my produce looks; I just want it to taste good.
Simon’s customers agree. Imperfect ships boxes of ugly fruits and vegetables to more than 5,200 subscribers in the Bay Area.
They’re saving money, too: an average of 30%-50% over regular produce, estimates Simon.
More important than the savings, though, are the environmental and societal gains that come with buying ugly produce.
“Within the U.S., discarded food is the biggest single component of landfill and incinerators,” The Guardian reports. “Food dumps are a rising source of methane, a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.”
And, when we stop wasting food, more can go to those who need it. This National Geographic article explains how ugly fruits and vegetables can help solve world hunger.
So, when you buy ugly produce, you’re not only saving money — you’re also doing a good thing for the world around you.
Where Can You Find Ugly Produce?
On board with ugly produce? I thought so.
Unfortunately, finding it is tougher than it should be.
Simon’s company currently serves the Bay area, and plans to expand to the rest of California soon. Click here to request your area be next!
Hungry Harvest offers a similar service in the Baltimore, DC and Philadelphia areas. Sign up for its newsletter, and you’ll get a free box if it comes to your area.
Even if you live outside those cities, there are still a few things you can do:
1. Check Your Farmers Market
Try going directly to the farmers themselves; they might be happy to part with produce they’d otherwise have to toss.
Be careful, though: Simon warns some farmers may try to sell you products that are “distressed” or about to expire. To avoid this, carefully examine any produce before purchasing it.
“Look at it, feel it, smell it,” he says. If you’re not sure what to look for, here’s a primer on picking ripe produce.
Don’t live near any farms? Check Falling Fruit, a network of urban foragers that helps you find the “overlooked culinary bounty of our city streets.”
2. Ask Your Grocery Store
Ugly produce has only made its way into a handful of grocery stores — you can see which ones on EndFoodWaste.org’s supermarket directory. Imperfect, for example, sells its produce to 11 Whole Foods stores in California.
Last week, Walmart made waves by announcing that, in addition to the ugly potatoes (“Spuglies”) it’s been selling in Texas since March, it will now offer ugly apples in 300 stores in Florida.
These 5-pound bags will cost $4.97, wrote Walmart spokesman John Ales in an email. For reference, a 5-pound bag of regular Red Delicious apples at my Walmart costs $5.42, so the imperfect bag would be a savings of 8%.
On a recent trip to my Walmart here in Saint Petersburg, Florida, I didn’t see any — and the staff weren’t aware of the program — but hopefully they’ll be on the shelves soon.
Simon supports the major retailer’s decision, calling it “a good start,” but is skeptical of its long-term effects.
“As far as they are saying, this is just a one-time effort,” he says. “We need more grocery stores taking the leap that Whole Foods is with Imperfect. That means selling year-round, not just doing a one-time sale and putting out a press release.”
In the likely case your grocery store doesn’t sell ugly produce, Simon recommends speaking to the produce manager.
“The industry is becoming more and more aware of food waste,” he says, “so the more consumers bring it to them, the more the issue can be on the industry’s radar.”
EndFoodWaste.org’s Jordan Figueiredo agrees that speaking up is key — he even offers a “#DemandUgly Toolkit” on his site with pre-written social media posts to help spark change.
3. Reduce Food Waste at Home
Even if you can’t find ugly produce in your area, you can still take steps to combat food waste at home.
Buy what you’ll eat, and eat what you buy, Simon urges.
“It’s really important to plan out your meals before you go to the grocery store,” he says. “Figure out what recipes or meals you want to cook in a given week and then go from there.”
Leanne Brown, author of the fantastic cookbook “Good & Cheap,” frames this as only buying produce you “have a purpose for.”
Simon also recommends creating an “Eat this first” bin, where you can place food items that will only be good for a few more days. (Related reading: what “sell-by” dates really mean.)
Wasting food, and thereby, wasting money, goes against everything we Penny Hoarders stand for. So do your best to find and purchase ugly produce and combat food waste within your home.
These steps might seem small — but in the face of billions of pounds and dollars of annual food waste, I’d say every carrot counts.
Your Turn: Would you buy ugly produce? Have you seen any in your area?
Susan Shain, senior writer for The Penny Hoarder, is always seeking adventure on a budget. Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.