Whole Foods might be synonymous with both high quality and high prices, but now the supermarket is trying something a little different: selling ugly produce that would otherwise be rejected by grocery stores for not conforming to strict aesthetic standards.
In a move announced late last week, Whole Foods said that it would be teaming up with the California-based company Imperfect Produce to sell misshapen, bruised, or otherwise “imperfect” fruits and vegetables in their stores. The pilot program will initially take place at a handful of northern California stores beginning in April, but food waste activists hope that the program will eventually expand to encompass all Whole Foods stores throughout the country.
Imperfect Produce, which launched last summer, currently delivers misshapen produce at a 30 percent discount rate to some 2,700 customers in the Oakland and Berkeley area. The company hopes to expand to most major American cities in the next three to five years, but CEO Ben Simon also sees grocery stores as a crucial tool in helping get produce that would otherwise be discarded into the hands of consumers.
“Whole Foods is a great partner since their customer base is open minded and cares about the story behind where their food comes from,” Simon told ThinkProgress in an email. “A lot of really cool organic and natural foods brands got their start at Whole Foods. We are particularly excited about this Whole Foods partnership because we see grocery stores as a big opportunity to reach people a lot faster and to prevent tons and tons of food waste. ”
The partnership comes as a result of a successful petition launched last summer by culinary nutritionist Stefanie Sacks and food waste activist Jordan Figueiredo, who runs the social media campaign @UglyFruitAndVeg, aimed at educating consumers about food waste caused by strict aesthetic standards.
In an interview with ThinkProgress, Figueiredo called the partnership “a big, big step.”
“A lot of people see Whole Foods as the aesthetic,” he said. “For them to take this step and say, ‘Look, “ugly” produce is perfectly good and we’re going to take responsibility and sell this,’ is great.”
For Whole Foods, the partnership represents a chance to strengthen their brand’s image, which is so often aligned with food that is both good for consumers and good for the planet.
“As a business, our goal is zero waste and we’re always looking for ways to reduce our collective impact and positively influence the industry,” Liz Burkhart, senior media relations specialist for Whole Foods, told ThinkProgress in an email. “For instance, we have in-store composting programs and actively source less cosmetically appealing produce for our freshly prepared foods, juice and smoothie bars. We continue to explore new ways to move toward zero waste.”
Food waste is a huge problem in the United States. Every year, 40 percent of the food that is grown ends up in the garbage, where it decomposes and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas 86 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. And while a great deal of that waste takes place at the consumer level, a large portion also takes place between the farm and the grocery store. This waste, known as post-harvest waste, takes place when farmers discard perfectly edible produce that, due to a number of natural reasons — from weather changes to gene mutations — doesn’t match the exacting aesthetic standards required by certain grocery stores. According to some estimates, between 20 and 30 percent of post-harvest produce is rejected by farmers due to strict aesthetic standards.
“People are so sick of us wasting food,” Figueiredo told ThinkProgress last August. “This is such a low hanging fruit solution to food waste.”
Outside of the United States, programs that sell imperfect produce at a discounted rate have been met with huge success. In 2014, France’s third-largest supermarket chain, Intermarché, launched a program to sell “ugly” produce at a 30 percent discount. Consumers loved it, and store traffic rose 24 percent. Loblaws, Canada’s largest food retailer, also sells misshapen produce at a discounted rate.
Profitable pilot programs have also popped up in the United States. Raley’s, a supermarket chain serving northern California and Nevada, partnered with Imperfect Produce last year to sell aesthetically imperfect produce in ten of their stores. According to Simon, the pilot was a success, increasing sales across the board for items included in the program. Recently, Giant Eagle became the largest grocery chain in the United States to sell aesthetically imperfect produce, launching a pilot program in five of their Pittsburgh stores that will offer produce with cosmetic imperfections at 20 to 25 percent markdowns.
“Now, many other grocery chains will start to follow,” Figuerido said. “They see one of the higher-end chains and one of the more budget-friendly chains. This does show that it can happen anywhere.”
Figuerido also said that he will continue to push for a solution to food waste at the legislative level. In December, Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced the Food Recovery Act, a comprehensive bill that seeks to address food waste from the farm to table. The bill, however, has garnered little attention and remains stuck in Congress.
“The really sad part is that it has no bipartisan support when it should, because it’s so much about feeding people in need,” Figuerido said.