Saving Ugly Produce: How the Fruits and Vegetables We Throw Away Could Feed the World

ugly carrots and other vegetables

It should shock all of us that here in the United States, food waste has reached crisis proportions. Not only do we throw out enough food to fill 44 skyscrapers each year, but a breathtaking amount of that tossed food is perfectly healthy, delicious fresh produce. About 1 in 5 fruits and vegetables grown in America (and one-third of the world’s produce) goes to waste, and 23% of all fruits and vegetables are wasted before they even reach grocery stores.

Why is this happening?

Usually, these fruits and vegetables are tossed for one simple and silly reason—they aren’t pretty enough. That’s right. These fruits and vegetables don’t meet the rigid standards of grocery stores, which are set at least in part by the standards of shoppers (that’s us!). Called “ugly produce,” these rejected apples and carrots and potatoes, etc., are either too small or too large, too stubby or too skinny, too oblong or too round. But they’re just as nutritious and delicious as their prettier counterparts. Overall, about  5 to 6 billion pounds of fresh, edible produce goes to waste before it hits grocery stores each year in the U.S.

spoiled produce wastedAll this waste is a huge problem on every level. Not only is the loss of so much perfectly edible food a moral tragedy in light of the more than 46.5 million Americans who struggle with having enough food to eat, but it’s also a gigantic environmental threat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one quarter of all fresh water goes toward growing food that no one eats. With water scarcity a growing concern and drought is an ever-increasing problem, that number boggles the mind. Additionally, food waste accounts for 34% of all human-caused emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas responsible for destructive climate change.

Fortunately, about twenty organizations around the country—most of which have popped up in recent years—are scrambling to solve the problem.

Getting the Food to Those Who Need It

In recent years, an impressive number of new programs around the country have developed in hopes of recovering and redistributing excess produce to those in need. Some people refer to these kinds of efforts as “farm-to-food-bank.” In fact, according to a tally by Civil Eats, 20 official programs are now saving over 300 million pounds of produce a year. Still, only a small portion of all this excess food is going to feed people in need, and billions of pounds are still getting tossed.

Most programs whose mission is to redistribute excess produce to those who need it report recovering less than half of the excess produce in their areas. Yet, the fresh produce food banks receive from these redistribution programs is crucial, and increasingly so. Feeding America reports that many people now depend on food banks not just for emergencies, but for their daily calories. In order for farm-to-foodbank programs to succeed on a wider scale, more infrastructure and funding is needed for shipping totes, trucks, cold storage, etc. Meanwhile, perfectly good produce is left to rot.

If your area has a food-to-foodbank program in need of support, you may be able to volunteer or donate. At the end of this article, you’ll find a complete list compiled by Civil Eats.

Stores Showing Ugly Produce Some Love

One solution to reducing food waste comes from retailers like Whole Foods being willing to try selling less-than-perfect produce. Whole Foods recently agreed to work with Imperfect Produce on a pilot program to test sales of ugly produce in its Northern California stores. Already, Whole Foods purchases ugly produce for use in its prepared foods, smoothies, and juices. The success putting ugly produce on the shelves remains to be seen, but a Whole Foods spokesperson has said the store is committed to moving toward zero waste and sees this partnership with Imperfect as a means to do that.

“We can’t think of a better partner to launch this with,” Ben Simon of Imperfect told National Public Radio recently. “The ugly produce trend has taken off across the world, and our fingers are crossed that U.S. consumers will be just as excited.”

Reduce Your Food Waste at Home

  • Use FoodKeeper or other apps to keep track of expiration dates.
  • Use smaller dishes. Our standard American plate is almost 40% larger than it was 50 years ago.
  • Designate one night a week for leftovers.
  • Give uneaten food another look. Maybe you can freezie it, can it, or blend it into a smoothie.
  • If you purchase meat, do so in small quantities, and try never to waste this very water-intensive food.

Farm to Food Bank Programs Help Put an End to Hunger and Produce Waste in the U.S.

Agricultural Surplus System

Please email Kath Clark, Food Programs Manager at kclark@fbcmichigan.org or call (517) 664-9905 to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Food Bank Council of Michigan Agricultural Surplus System

Mainers Feeding Mainers

Please email Nancy Perry, Food Sourcing Manager Project Director at nperry@gsfb.org or call (207) 782-3554 x1109 to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Good Shepherd food Bank Mainers Feeding Mainers program.

Farm to Food Bank

Please email donate@georgiafoodbank.org or call (762) 233-9410 to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Georgia Food Bank Association Farm to Food Bank program.

Farm to Food Bank

Please email foodbank@foodbankwma.org or call (800) 247-9362 to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts Farm to Food Bank program.

Texans Feeding Texans

Please email Sarah Sykes, Produce Program Manager at ssykes@feedingtexas.org to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Feeding Texas – Texans Feeding Texans program.

Farm to Families

Please email David Cloniger, Food Resource Manager at david.cloniger@secondharvestmidtn.org or call (615) 430-3002 to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee Farm to Families program.

Farms to Food Banks

Please email Sarah Vaughn, Programs Coordinator at sarah@kafb.org or call (859) 986-7422 to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Kentucky Association of Food Banks Farms to Food Banks program.

Farmers Ending Hunger

Please email John Burt, Executive Director at burtjgb@aol.com or call (503) 931-9232 to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Farmers Ending Hunger program.

Farm Fresh

Please email Todd Lilley at TLilley@brafb.org or call (540) 213-8424 to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank Farm Fresh program.

Farm to Food Pantry

Please email Thea Upham, Program Director – Community Access at thea@farmfreshri.org to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Farm Fresh Rhode Island Farm to Food Pantry program.

Farm to Food Bank

Please email Alison Grey Germain at alison@bozo.coop or call (406) 587-1919 ext. 76 to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Bozeman Coop Farm to Food Bank program.

Farm to Family

Please email Steve Linkhart, Director of Farm to Family at stevelinkhart@cafoodbanks.org or call (866) 321-4435 or to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the California Association of Food Banks Farm to Family program.

Farm to Food Pantry

Please email David Bobanick, Executive Director at rotary@firstharvest.org to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Rotary First Harvest Farm to Food Pantry program.

Farm to Pantry

Please email Linda Hutchings, Procurement Coordinator at procurement@ctfoodbank.org or call (203) 469-5000, ext. 336 to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Connecticut Food Bank Farm to Pantry program.

Share Fresh

Please email produce@2harvest.org or call 1 (877) 547-0245 to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the North County Food Bank Share Fresh Minnesota program.

Farms to Food Banks

Please email produce@feedingindianashungry.org or call (317) 396-9355 to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Feeding Indiana’s Hungry Farms to Food Banks program.

Agricultural Clearance Program

Please email Erin Wright, Agricultural Clearance Program Manager here or call (614) 221-4336 ext. 223 to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Ohio Association of Food Banks Agricultural Clearance program.

Farm to Food Bank

Please email Amy Cawley, Farm to Food Bank Coordinator at acawley@mdfoodbank.org to offer produce (for purchase or donation) to the Maryland Food Bank Farm to Food Bank program.

Farmers Feeding Florida and Farm Share

Please email Robin Safley, Fresh Produce Sourcer at Robin@FeedingFlorida.org or call 1 (850) 545-6400 to offer produce (for PPO costs or donation) to the Florida Association of Food Banks

Farmers Feeding Florida program.

Please email John Delgado at john@farmshare.org or call (305) 246-3276 to offer produce for donation to Farm Share, Inc.

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