Every ‘ugly’ bit helps (Editorial)

by | Jun 21, 2019

It’s not news, but food waste in the United States continues to be a serious problem.
After farmers struggle to grow and raise produce, up to 40 percent of it never ends up on consumers’ plates. Each year, about 20 percent of the nation’s cropland produces food that will never be consumed, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Wasted crops are seeded, fertilized, watered and raised, and a good deal of the final farm product is even distributed.
Still, it ends up decomposing in a landfill — in a country where 40 million people don’t have adequate access to nutritious food.
Waste occurs at each step of the nation’s food system, and everyone, including farmers and consumers, is responsible, but a significant chunk — about 6 billion pounds of fruits and vegetables each year — is discarded due to superficial retail standards.
It’s produce deemed too “ugly” to rest on supermarket shelves where it might alienate picky consumers.
Fortunately, the markets have produced a small solution that may help some farmers make more money — even if it’s unlikely to dent the country’s waste issues.
Over the last several years, numerous young entrepreneurs have launched “ugly” produce businesses — retail companies that ship boxes of misshapen, discarded produce to consumers nationwide.
Two well-known companies, Hungry Harvest in Baltimore (which appeared on the ABC TV show “Shark Tank” in 2016) and Imperfect Produce in San Francisco, were launched by University of Maryland graduates.
The Delmarva Farmer spoke this month with Abhi Ramesh, founder of another company called Misfits Market in New Jersey.
In less than a year, Ramesh, an entrepreneur in his late 20s with a finance background, built Misfits Market into a multi-million dollar business that expects to serve the entire East Coast by the end of the year. Misfits customers can order boxes of organic mixed fruits and vegetables, which are shipped and arrive in three days or less. A 10-to-20-pound box costs $23.75, and customers can sign up for weekly or biweekly subscriptions for additional cost savings.
It’s a new industry whose rapid growth is fueled by an increasingly familiar concoction of venture capital and digital marketing. It’s not without its detractors. Some agricultural experts have said they fear the ugly produce industry simply gentrifies farm products that were once accepted by food banks and other organizations that feed the needy.
Others say the industry is little more than a marketing ploy directed at credulous, upscale consumers eager to buy products that “solve” the planet’s growing collection of incomprehensibly large problems.
Ugly produce companies could help growers make additional money, said Sarah Taber, a North Carolina crop scientist, in an essay published in The Washington Post in March. But consumers should focus on the most significant cause of food waste, she said — their homes.
“Consumers are forever being bombarded with claims that our individual buying choices can put a meaningful dent in some big problem. Food waste is one of the areas where that’s true,” she wrote. “But we won’t make much of a difference by acquiring a taste for hideous, gnarly cucumbers.
“We should just be sure that our shopping carts and grocery budgets aren’t bigger than our stomachs.”
Meanwhile, Ramesh and Misfits Market is working with about 70 farms. Most of them, he said, are too small to donate discarded produce, and Misfits serves families looking to save money. The “ugly” produce industry may never solve the world’s waste issues, but the farms it buys from are monetizing produce that would most likely rot in a field.
In a world of dwindling profit margins, every little bit helps.

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