Today’s post is written by Ivy Ray, Senior Procurement Specialist at SafeSourcing Inc.
I was recently quite surprised to find out that there is an “Ugly Produce” movement which was originally started as a way to combat the massive problem of food waste. It has now become a big business and start-ups have sprung up selling less than perfect fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be thrown away due to imperfections in their appearance. One California farmer states, “Ten million tons of unharvested food is lost each year. If we used all of the food that is produced in this country, we could end world hunger. It’s not a supply issue, it’s a distribution issue.” There are debates about whether this is disingenuous given the complexity of the nation’s food system. Critics are saying this is not the answer, but farmers say it is the way of the future.
This produce is being packaged and sold to customers at a fraction of the cost. One company, Imperfect Produce, is a service that delivers seasonal, cosmetically imperfect produce for affordable prices. They and similar companies such as, Misfits Market and Hungry Harvest market themselves as solutions against food waste. The company defines “imperfect” in several ways: cosmetic damage, surplus or excess inventory, undervalued or lack of demand, or doesn’t meet a strict specification from the buyer, usually in the way it’s harvested or packaged.
USDA guidelines separate produce into grades based on size and color, so “imperfectly” good vegetables that don’t make it to store shelves, due only to irregularities in appearance, end up going to waste. Some of this produce does get distributed to food banks and soup kitchens, but the costs to ship is sometimes more expensive than the actual product. A significant portion of the country’s produce is grown in California, so the majority of Imperfect’s fruits and vegetables come from there. They work with over 200 growers nationwide and source most of its produce (78%) from family farms or cooperatives.
About one-fifth of produce is trashed simply because it’s unattractive. And while food waste experts have said tossing perfectly edible produce is a global issue, Americans are particularly bad offenders. Some 60 million tons, or $160 billion worth, of fruits and vegetables gets thrown away in the United States every year, and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average American family of four throws out an annual $1,600 worth of produce.
Almost half of all produce harvested in the United States is never eaten. Fruits and vegetables go unpicked in fields or get thrown away at the store, simply because they don’t look good. I’m not sure when we started the habit of throwing out edible food that isn’t the most attractive, but there are definitely too many people going hungry in this world to just overlook the possibility of supplying where there is a demand.
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