Growing movement focuses on ‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables to fight food waste

Yesenia Gutierrez of Pasco picks Granny Smith apples in 2014 at Broetje Orchards near Prescott, Wash.
Yesenia Gutierrez of Pasco picks Granny Smith apples in 2014 at Broetje Orchards near Prescott, Wash. Tri-City Herald

Apple growers want every apple they harvest to be perfect, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

Farmers of all crops often end up with plenty of produce that has wrinkles, weather damage, or wonky shapes that are not seen in the grocery store because they don’t meet modern visual expectations. But a growing movement calls for eating these “ugly” fruits and vegetables to help combat America’s staggering food waste problem.

“I think the public has a huge misconception that if there is a mark on it, it’s not good,” said Jordan Figueiredo, the founder of the Ugly Fruit and Veg Campaign. “But almost half of all produce is wasted; we throw away 20 billion pounds of ugly produce every year.”

Figueiredo, whose activism includes posting photos of funny looking fruits and vegetables on social media and encouraging grocery stores to carry ugly produce, was in Yakima last week to visit Tree Top, the region’s largest fruit processor.

In the U.S. alone, consumers and retailers toss 133 billion pounds of food every year – uneaten leftovers, expired products and unsold fresh produce.

Tree Top spokeswoman Sharon Miracle said the company has been making use of ugly fruit long before it was hip.

“That’s why we exist,” she said. “Our growers wanted a place to take fruit that’s not pretty enough for the fresh market and we are here to provide fruit products that value that fruit.”

Every year, the company processes more than 600 million pounds of “ugly” apples into juice, applesauce, peeled apple slices, dried fruit that’s used in cereal, granola bars and other products. That’s just more than 10 percent of Washington’s apple harvest, while the rest goes primarily to the fresh market, domestic and exports.

“One of the reasons I’m excited to work with Tree Top is that they are one of the few companies talking about this, saying, ugly produce is OK, look, we’re already eating it,” Figueiredo said during a tour of the facility, where he scoured bins of freckled golden delicious apples and undersized galas for funny shaped fruit.

As growers send trucks of apples to the Selah plant, Tree Top staff inspects samples for sugar content to see if the fruit is so ripe it needs to be processed right away or if it can be stored for a month or so. Then, a computerized sorting system scans the fruit and allocates it as destined for one product based on condition and variety, said Joel Yeager, director of logistics.

Fruit in the best condition heads to their fresh sliced apple production line, he said, but if the apples are too big for the slicer, they get diverted for juice. Firm apples with skin blemishes end up in sauce.

Thanks to processors like Tree Top, edible apples grown in the Yakima Valley are rarely wasted, said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

But for growers, selling to a juice processor yields far less return for their fruit than selling to the fresh market.

That’s what some are embracing the “ugly fruit and veg” trend to try to sell cosmetically damaged fruit fresh.

It’s the low-hanging fruit of the food waste problem, pun intended.

Jordan Figueiredo, founder of the Ugly Fruit and Veg Campaign

This year, Columbia Marketing International, a Wentachee-based marketing company representing Washington growers and packers, launched its “I’m Perfect” brand to market imperfect fruit to consumers.

“Our take on it was to take advantage of this ugly fruit trend, to leverage that to say this is some fruit that has some blemishes, but it really does taste good,” said Steve Lutz, CMI vice president of sales. “It’s been pretty encouraging, just from the number of retailers that have expressed interest.”

Most of the apples sold under the “I’m Perfect” brand this year will be from orchards in the Quincy area that suffered hail damage, which leaves scars on the skin, Lutz said.

The challenge in marketing the brand is that CMI and its growers don’t have enough imperfect fruit to contract with large grocers, he said.

“We get paid to produce perfect quality fruit and that’s what we do for the most part. We’d rather not have a lot of supply for this, because then something went wrong,” Lutz said. “Hopefully, its a win-win that we can get some additional fruit in the markets and generate some initial revenue for growers that have a catastrophic event like a hail storm.”

Grocery chains are also trying to get into the ugly produce game.

Figueiredo said Giant Eagle and Whole Foods Market grocery chains each started to market “ugly” fruits and vegetables in the past year. And earlier this summer, Wal-Mart announced it would sell CMI’s “I’m Perfect” apples in select stores. The chain has also sold “Spuglies” – weather-damaged potatoes – in some locations.

It’s a small step in the face of an enormous problem.

The United Nations estimates that globally about a third of all the food produced is wasted, and that 2.9 trillion pounds of uneaten food represents a staggering waste of water, land, fertilizer, pesticides and so forth.

And ugly produce is far from the only issue. In the U.S. alone, consumers and retailers toss 133 billion pounds of food every year – uneaten leftovers, expired products and unsold fresh produce.

But Figueiredo said he’s found the ugly fruit issue to be the best place to start.

“It’s the low-hanging fruit of the food waste problem, pun intended,” he said. “It’s raising awareness that food isn’t grown the way it looks at the grocery store where we see everything the same size, shape and color. … This is reconnecting people with where their food comes from.”