Climate

Selling Ugly Fruits And Vegetables Could Be Key To Solving America’s Food Waste Problem

CREDIT: Jordan Figueiredo

Jordan Figueiredo wants you to be able to buy these amorous carrots wherever carrots are sold.

Every year, 40 percent of the food grown in the United States ends up in the garbage. A lot of that waste happens at the consumer level — according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), about 25 percent of the food that Americans buy is thrown away. But a lot of that waste also happens between the farm and the grocery store, where strict and sometimes arbitrary cosmetic standards mean that a perfectly nutritious carrot can end up as waste simply because it grew a little imperfectly.

To Jordan Figueiredo, that particular sort of food waste — the kind that comes from fresh, nutritious vegetables that end up in the trash because of how they look — seemed especially easy to avoid. And so, about six months ago, he launched @UglyFruitAndVeg, a one-man, social-media-fueled effort to make Americans fall in love with ugly fruits and vegetables.

That campaign, aided by whimsical pictures of misshapen produce accompanied by humorous captions and hashtags, took off — in six months, Figueiredo has amassed over 18,000 followers, claiming names like Jamie Oliver, Alice Waters, and Michael Pollan as fans. Now, Figueiredo has a bolder vision — convince Walmart and Whole Foods, two of the United States’ most visible retailers, to sell ugly fruits and vegetables.

“People are so sick of us wasting food,” Figueiredo told ThinkProgress. “This is such a low hanging fruit solution to food waste.”

For nearly four and a half years, Figueiredo has worked as a solid waste specialist for the Castro Valley Sanitary District in California, working on reducing waste throughout the small community. About three years before that, he had been working as an environmental technician for the city of Dublin, a suburban town in California’s East Bay. He was charged with overseeing a laundry list of environmental tasks, from clean water inspections to greenhouse gas emissions inventories, when he read learned about zero waste, a philosophy that encourages the reuse of all discarded products so that none of them end up going to landfills or dumps.

But as Figueiredo learned more and more about zero waste, he kept tripping over something he found especially difficult to stomach: food waste.

“Before I got involved, I didn’t know much about it. Once you dig into it more, you really start to talk to people, you realize how big of a problem it is,” Figueiredo said. “It really blew my mind that we could be wasting almost half of all food while at the same time having one in six food insecure in the U.S. and not a ton was being done about it.”

When it comes to food, Americans have never been more wasteful than they are today. In the 1960s, Americans threw out 12.2 million tons of food — by 2012, that number had ballooned to 35 million tons. In just half a century, Americans had almost tripled the amount of food that filled our landfills. Over the same period of time, the number of food insecure Americans also increased, from one in 20 in 1968 to one in six in by 2014. America is producing — and throwing away — more food than ever, at the same time that more and more Americans aren’t able to count on having their next meal.

But it isn’t just food insecure Americans that are suffering from the nation’s growing addiction to food waste — the environment is also on the losing end of the equation. In 2013, after recycling and composting was taken into account, food was the most wasted material in the country, surpassing paper, plastics, and yard trimmings. In total, food waste accounted for just over 20 percent of U.S. trash. When food waste makes its way to landfills, it decomposes, releasing methane — a potent greenhouse gas. Worldwide, food waste is a primary source of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, global emissions from food waste in 2007 were estimated at 3.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent. That is more than twice the emissions from all U.S. transportation in 2010. If food waste was a nation, it would rank only behind China and the United States in terms of global emissions.

Still, the problem has largely gone unnoticed for years. Globally, the subject of food waste suffers from a lack of data, as estimates vary widely on the extent of the problem. Prior to the NRDC’s 2012 publication of a supply-chain analysis of food waste, the most extensive report about food loss in the United States was conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1997, and only looked at losses on the retailer and consumer level, not losses on the farm level or from farm to retailer.

“I think it’s one of those things that has slipped through the cracks here for so long,” Figueiredo said. “There hasn’t been someone raising a stink about this publicly. I know there’s NGOs that work with people behind the scenes, but that can only get you so far.”

So, in October of 2014, Figueiredo decided to publicly raise a stink. Partnering with the NRDC, he developed the Zero Food Waste Forum, a gathering of food waste activists that culminated in feeding 5,000 people from food that would have otherwise ended up in landfills in the middle of Oakland.

But that wasn’t all Figueiredo did. He had also seen the success of a campaign launched in the spring of 2014 by Intermarché, the third-largest supermarket chain in France. Dubbed “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables,” the campaign sought to glorify ugly fruits and vegetables — those that would otherwise be thrown away for not meeting industry aesthetic standards — and sell the imperfect produce at a reduced cost to customers. The campaign kicked off with a massive PR push, with kooky videos and pictures extolling the “grotesque” apple, the “hideous” orange, the “failed” lemon, the “ridiculous” potato, the “disfigured” eggplant, and the “ugly” carrot.

Figueiredo was instantly struck by the campaign’s visual, humorous tactics. “I thought that maybe if we could do a social media campaign like this every single day, maybe we could get people thinking about this issue,” he said.

And so he launched @UglyFruitAndVeg in December of 2014. The account started slowly at first, but picked up considerable traction in January, when celebrity chef Jamie Oliver retweeted a few of Figueiredo’s images. Each day, Figeuiredo tweets out images of misshapen produce — intertwined “loving” carrots or dimpled peaches — alongside facts about food waste. Initially, he was pulling pictures from a supermarket in Switzerland that had held an ugly produce contest a few years ago — a wealth of images that helped Figueiredo get started. But these days, the photos are mostly a mix of Figeuriedo’s own finds (he spends considerably more time at farmer’s markets now than when he started this project, he said) and images that fans send in. The account has become so interactive, he said, that he gets between 10 and 20 images per day.

“I wanted to show these images and break down people’s misconception that produce that doesn’t look good is bad,” he said. “For the most part, people have no idea that produce can look different than it does in the store.”

America’s supermarkets are brimming with fresh produce that all looks exactly the same — perfectly round, red tomatoes, stick-straight carrots and cucumbers, and plump little diamond strawberries. But that’s not the way that produce always turns out. For a number of natural reasons — from weather changes to gene mutations — produce can grow to look a little wonky. Slight cosmetic differences — irregular shape, abnormal color, or healed scars — don’t affect the safety of a product, Marita Cantwell, post-harvest specialist with the University of California, Davis, told ThinkProgress. But these cosmetic irregularities are often the focus of U.S. grading standards.

The USDA’s quality standards for produce offer farmers and retailers little specific help when deciding which produce to throw away post-harvest — as a 2014 Bon Appétit investigation points out, the USDA’s voluntary standards are vague, outdated, and open to interpretation. And many retailers can have quality standards that surpass those suggested by the USDA — both Walmart and Whole Foods told ThinkProgress that their standards go above and beyond those outlined by the USDA, encouraging farmers to not even send misshapen produce to those retailers to begin with.

Exactly how much food waste those stringent standards cause is unknown — the USDA doesn’t keep track of numbers, and most statistics are anecdotal. An NPR piece on food waste found that one potato farmer throws away — or culls, as its known in the industry — nearly a third of his potatoes post-harvest because of aesthetic anomalies. An NRDC investigation into post-harvest culling in California found amounts ranging from just one percent of harvest (in head lettuce) to around 30 percent (in plums and pears).

“The story is more of a what we don’t know than what we do know,” JoAnne Burkenkamp, senior advocate for the NRDC’s Food and Agriculture Program, told ThinkProgress. “There is no source currently for nationwide data about on farm food losses.” Through her own research, however, she estimates that an average of 20 to 30 percent of post-harvest produce is rejected by farmers due to cosmetic standards.

Now, Figueiredo is hoping to encourage two of the nation’s biggest grocers — Walmart and Whole Foods — to come to terms with ugly produce. Alongside Stefanie Sacks, a culinary nutritionist, Figueiredo recently launched a petition calling for the two chains to sell ugly produce at a discounted rate, similar to the campaigns at Intermarché and elsewhere. Currently, the petition has over 83,000 signatures, gaining support from food celebrities like Mario Batali.

“I would make it so that grocers cannot reject that produce — that they have to figure out a way to sell it or work with it,” Figueiredo said.

Both Whole Foods and Walmart say that they are actively looking for ways to reduce their contribution to food waste, from better packaging to educating consumers about what produce looks like at different stages of maturity. At Whole Foods, any cosmetically unappealing produce that makes it to the store is turned into prepared food and juice, or donated to local food rescue organizations, Whole Foods spokeswoman Liz Burkhart told ThinkProgress. And Walmart is keeping a close eye on Asda — a British grocery chain that the company acquired in 1999 — to see how its pilot program for selling unappealing produce fares. But while the company might adopt a similar scheme at some point, it hasn’t made any motion to do so in the near future.

Still, Figueiredo wants more. He points to a number of campaigns around the globe — from Intermarché in France to Loblaws in Canada — that show that consumers can and will purchase misshapen produce, especially when it’s offered at a discounted rate. In the United States, two campaigns in California are using a similar idea at a smaller level — Imperfect Produce delivers misshapen fruits and vegetables at a discounted rate to customers across the Bay Area, while the small grocery chain Raley’s is piloting a discounted “ugly” produce program at ten of its locations this summer.

But beyond seeing knobby carrots and bulbous oranges line the produce aisles of Whole Foods and Walmart, Figueiredo really wants Americans — in government, in business, and in private — to recognize the food waste problem.

“I think there’s definitely going to be a cultural shift,” he said. “I think it’s already starting.”

UPDATE AUG 19, 2015 6:28 PM

A previous version of this post erroneously referred to standards "required" by the USDA. The USDA does not set standards for produce -- the retailers themselves are responsible for setting the standards. ThinkProgress regrets the error.

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