The Good and the Bad of Saving the Ugly

by Jane Black

Jane Black is an award-winning New York food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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With water scarce in California, peach farmer Mas Masumoto decided to try something different. This summer, he used between 20 percent and 30 percent less water to grow his Gold Dust peaches. The tactic produced an intensely flavored fruit, but one that was about 20 percent smaller than normal. His loyal retail outlets—stores like the progressive Berkeley Bowl—took them. But customers weren’t buying. After years accustomed to buying peaches as big as softballs, shoppers saw the smaller fruit as flawed or somehow unworthy.

Masumoto was hoping that a new trend sweeping the food world—you could call it “In Defense of Ugly Fruit”—would help in the marketplace. Activists who want to slash food waste are trumpeting the virtues of imperfect or “cosmetically challenged” fruits and vegetables—those that are typically thrown out before coming to market. Compass Group, one of the nation’s largest food service providers, and its subsidiary Bon Appetit Management Company, launched in 2014 Imperfectly Delicious, a program that salvages so-called seconds for use in its thousands of cafes. A new produce brand called Imperfect sells blemished produce at a discount in grocery stores and through its own CSA, while Hungry Harvest sells its ugly stuff through a CSA and donates a healthy meal to someone in need for every box it sells.

The campaigns seem like a win-win. As much as 40 percent of America’s food ends up in a landfill while one in six Americans occasionally go hungry. But for farmers, it’s a tricky proposition. If lumpy, small, pockmarked fruits and vegetables are, as we are told, perfectly good, should they really cost less? If the expectation is that they should, Masumoto will never get a fair price for his smaller peaches that are grown in a way that respects environmental limits.  “We live in a cheap food world, and this [the lack of customers buying his fruit] inadvertently perpetuates that,” says Masumoto.

For this column, I talked to half a dozen farmers in California, Maryland, New York and Washington. None could boast that they were making any real money on imperfect produce. Yet they were hesitant to talk openly about their concerns for fear they would look selfish or stingy. I could hardly blame them. It’s awkward to talk about money when the rationale to end food waste is feeding the hungry and environmental responsibility. Still, they wanted to know: Would the cause celebre of ugly fruit help make their farms more financially sustainable?

Labor, packaging and transportation are the biggest costs of selling produce seconds. But they vary from farm to farm, crop to crop, even season to season. On a huge farm with mechanized production, it may not make sense to pay workers to walk thousands of acres to pick leftover and damaged produce that sells for 50 cents on the dollar. (And that’s where those heartbreaking videos of mountains of perfectly edible lettuce abandoned in the fields come from.) Even on smaller farms, it may pay to pick some crops and not others.

“It really depends on the fruit,” explains Albert Wilklow, whose family has been farming in Highland, N.Y., since 1855. “With peaches, we roll them on a packing table. There’s a bucket for the bad ones and a box for firsts and seconds. It doesn’t cost us any more to do that. But with something like red currants, if we can’t pick a flat in an hour, it’s not worth picking.” (For the record, Wilklow Orchards wastes very little; it uses its imperfect fruit at its own cidery and bakery.)

The key, then, is making the numbers work for farmers. That is what Claire Cummings, Bon Appetit’s first-ever waste specialist, does by working with individual farms to solve the problems they face. In Washington state, Ralph’s Greenhouse used to spend time and resources to haul away piles of misshapen organic carrots to avoid infestation of the carrot rust fly. Now they sell them through Imperfectly Delicious. In New Jersey, hydroponic farm Vertically Local repackaged small (and therefore imperfect) lettuces that were too expensive when wrapped in their traditional plastic clamshell. The farm now delivers bags of 20 small lettuce heads each to Bon Appetit’s chefs.

In the year ending in June, Imperfectly Delicious rescued 94 tons of imperfect (though perfectly good) fruits and vegetables in seven states. By fall 2015, the program will be operating in eight more.

It’s important to note that there isn’t always a solution that works for farmers. When Bon Appetit tried to buy apples that had fallen to the ground, the Washington farm refused, worried it might cause them to lose their food-safety certification. Cummings also noted that on the East Coast in particular, there isn’t enough labor to harvest top-quality stuff, let alone seconds.

It’s no wonder then that Cummings is often frustrated by how over-simplified the conversation about food waste has become. “It isn’t that people are wasteful. It’s that there is no good market,” she says. Ending food waste can’t be exclusively about altruism or doing the right thing. It also has to make sense for farmers, working within the strictures imposed by food-safety laws and helping them to be more financially and environmentally sustainable. To make that happen, we need to be prepared to pay a good price even for the small, the blemished and the ugly.

Carrot photo courtesy of Bon Appétit Management Company