Tackling 'ugly' produce

December 12, 2018
Food Supply

There are initiatives to repurpose or redistribute food popping up in various countries, trying to reverse the sad story of ugly fruit. Why are projects such as Imperfect Produce gaining ground more now than ever?

Historically, the issue of food waste has not been very transparent to the average consumer, but once you discover how the system works to produce this waste, you begin to see many more areas of opportunity to improve our food system.

Let’s talk about the suppliers, the farmers you work with to source ‘ugly’ produce and deliver to your customers. Are these mainly large farms with a lot of surplus produce? Or are they smaller farms that don’t use pesticides and therefore have less standardised fruit and veg?

Our philosophy as a company is to “follow the waste,” so this means we source from primarily medium and larger scale growers since these farms have the most potential waste. Smaller growers don’t always have the volumes that we need for our boxes. They also don’t often have the same waste problem as larger growers because their end markets (CSAs or farmers markets) are thankfully much more open-minded about appearances than grocery stores are.

On your question of using pesticides: What I’ve learned is that creating ‘beautiful’ produce is not chemistry, but strict mathematics, the way you plant it. Any field will yield a certain percentage of “ugly” produce. Anyone who has had a lemon tree or grown their own vegetables inherently knows this. Perfect looking produce is not a sign that chemicals were added necessarily, more an indication that all the less beautiful produce was excluded during picking and sorting.

And how do farmers react to your solution?

Farmers put a lot of input (water, energy, time) into their land. If their produce ends up going to landfill, or to feed cattle, this is not an optimal outcome, both from a financial and environmental standpoint. Once we demonstrate that we can help provide a better outcome for them financially, it’s not difficult to get them on board.

I was speaking to Nick Balla, a chef who repurposes surplus food to create meals, and he believes it’s sometimes beneficial to leave produce in the ground, as fertiliser for the soil. What are your thoughts on this?

Oh yeah, Nick’s a good friend of ours! It’s true that putting produce back into the ground is not a total ecological loss, as it returns nutrients to the soil. But there are other options. If you check out the EPA food recovery pyramid, you can see a list of priorities for food production. Right under surplus reduction is feeding people, then animal feed, followed by composting, with landfill at bottom.

Is food waste an issue that can be solved from the bottom up, or must change be implemented through regulatory measures?

The ReFed graph is pretty eye opening and has shaped my personal opinion, which is that change needs to happen everywhere, and every actor needs to take action. Will one person buying differently change much? Absolutely not. We need businesses, governments, and agricultural companies to act differently. Large grocery operations are definitely part of the problem, so they are beginning to find ways to donate more stuff they can’t use is.

Where can individuals put their energy for a positive impact?

Cleaning out their refrigerator. It sounds small, because we have huge refrigerators these days, we lose track of our “personal inventory,” forget what they already have. Thankfully this is a problem of neglect, not malice. We also need to change the paradigm of cooking from a recipe to cooking from what you have left in your fridge. Take stock of what you have. This would be one change to ask of home cooks.

If Imperfect Produce wasn’t focusing on food waste, which issue would be the one to focus on?

There are so many other types of waste like water waste, clothing waste, and electronics waste. Every sector of our society produces waste, and there are innovative and delightful ways to optimise.

I think many people are out of touch with what it takes to produce the food that we eat. This is why I’m a huge fan of gardening. Gardening brings you back in touch with what food is, and you start to appreciate its beauty.