Buying ugly food is sustainability fashion, not activism

Vassar Food Community member Tamika Whitenack ’21 poses with a bok choi from her Community Supported Agriculture share, an alternative to Ugly Food movements. Courtesy of Sumiko Neary

Twisted carrots, misshapen strawberries and scarred apples—a sampling of the ugly fruits and veggies most shoppers reject for prettier alternatives. In an increasingly aesthetic-oriented consumer culture with an endless supply of perfect-looking produce, ugly foods are left abandoned in produce sections despite having the same taste and nutritional content as more attractive versions.

Often cited as one of the biggest and most ignored problems of the developed world, food waste should be at the forefront of national conversations given that nearly half of all produce is wasted (The Atlantic, “Why Americans Lead the World in Food Waste,” 07.15.2016). In fact, produce is the most wasted household item in the U.S. despite the tragedy that 37 million Americans are food insecure (Feeding America, “What is Food Insecurity in America?”). To combat this phenomenon, companies such as Misfits Market, Imperfect Foods and Hungry Harvest now sell these oft-wasted fruits and vegetables to customers in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)—style boxes. Today, hoards of enthusiastic consumers purchase boxes of hilariously imperfect produce weekly.

Misfits Markets is the T.J. Maxx of the produce industry. You may have even seen some of their copious ugly produce ads on your Facebook newsfeed or online shopping sites. Their brilliant marketing campaigns draw you in with anthropomorphized vegetables and cute slogans. “A hideous orange makes beautiful juice,” professes an Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables ad. “Always fresh, sometimes normal,” reads Misfits Market’s. And on the side of an Imperfect Foods box two conjoined carrots hug under the sweet words, “We grew up together.”

While these ads draw attention, these companies’ missions to eliminate food waste and build a better food system for everyone have sparked ethical controversies in food communities nationwide. In fact, the whole Ugly Food movement—a food trend these companies set in motion—has ignited debates surrounding the ethics of commodifying flawed foods. These niche markets might be displacing established local efforts to reduce food waste and distribute uglies to food insecure households. Instead, they cater to health-conscious clientele and ultimately fail to address the larger issue of macro-scale farm overproduction and household waste.

Cleanly packaged collections of ugly foods from far away have even come to Vassar. Sophie Kennen ’20 used to order ugly produce from Misfits Market, but recently stopped. Ironically, they sent her too much and she couldn’t eat everything Misfits delivered— the items rescued to reduce food waste ended up in the trash anyway. Additionally, her boxes were not only filled with fruits and veggies, but an excess of packaging and plastic. This strikes me as a clear disconnect between the company’s mission and the consumer’s experience. Despite the variety of ugly produce within Misfits boxes, the company lacks variety in box size. Consequently, food waste persists despite the ingenuity of these faddish markets.

My professors tell me that before the commodification of imperfect produce, ugly foods were simply tucked away in juices and buffet bars—not merely left to rot in the fields or on grocery shelves. Before ugly food became a trendy topic in food-conscious communities, unseemly carrots were shredded, non-triangular strawberries made into jam and bruised apples turned into cider. Beyond grocery stores and restaurants, ugly, leftover foods are also vital resources for charities, food pantries and nonprofits. Organizations like Feeding America use ugly unsellables to feed food-insecure Americans at no cost. Last year they provided 43,000 pounds of summer squash for people in need after an Amish farm in Pennsylvania harvested squash too ugly to be sold in grocery stores (Feeding America, “Three Stories of Rescued Summer Veggies,” 07.20.2018).

Questions emerge. Are for-profit companies like Misfits Market doing the world any good, or are they distracting from a broken food system? And for our local context: Do Hudson Valley farmers benefit from these services, or do they disrupt local systems already in place? These are some of the questions I grapple with in my senior thesis in Science, Technology & Society (STS).

Organizations such as Cornell Cooperative Extension glean leftover produce from the fields of the Poughkeepsie Farm Project (PFP) to feed food-insecure families in the greater Poughkeepsie area for free (Poughkeepsie Farm Project, “Gleaning to Feed the Hudson Valley,” 10.11.2017). Free uglies have even been featured in local events. Two years ago, a festival called “Feeding the Hudson Valley” used ugly produce to make lunch for the public. The event’s mission was to “create awareness of food waste,” and “local organizations fed hundreds of people with produce that was set to be discarded.” (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Feeding the Hudson Valley turns ‘ugly produce’ into meals,” 10.7.2017) Organizations and farms including the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, Dutchess Outreach and the Hudson Valley Regional Council pitched in to promote ugly foods and run this community outreach. They served ratatouille made with imperfect tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, peppers, yellow squash and other rescued misfits. Hundreds of people attended the event.

Since the Hudson Valley sits at the forefront of foodie-ness, I assumed farmers would know about the Ugly Food movement. But after conversations with workers at Adams Fairacre Farms store in Poughkeepsie, small-scale organic farmers and market vendors, this is not what I discovered. One farmer said his farm didn’t produce enough ugly food waste to necessitate selling to alternative markets for redistribution. He left undesirables to animals on the farm. One produce vendor at the Thursday farmers market on Raymond Ave asked for clarification on the topic altogether: “The ugly food…what?” The movement hasn’t made a mark here yet, and after diving into the efficacy of Hudson Valley food distribution, maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe the movement would put price tags on what’s given to people in need for free.

Imperfect produce often finds a home in the “seconds” pile at grocery stores, farmers markets and CSAs. Shoppers can expect deep discounts for food in seconds. I discovered the seconds pile this past harvest season through Vassar Food Community’s (VFC) CSA share at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project. Every Saturday morning, a few VFC members and I would hike over to PFP to collect our CSA share: an exciting amalgamation of kale, watermelon radishes, beets, carrots and sweet potatoes. We have incorporated the produce into our club’s many culinary creations. To supplement larger communal meals, we cheerfully collected free ugly produce from the seconds bin. Free and still good to eat, that bin became a favorite stockpile of blemished but delicious extras.

I started the semester asking, “Why aren’t more farmers in the Hudson Valley taking advantage of this hidden market?” but now my question has shifted: “Why does this movement exist at all and what are the ethics of commodifying such foods when we already have CSAs?”

CSAs are incredible models of local food distribution, and some farms ensure that cost isn’t a barrier to enjoying one. For example, PFP accepts SNAP and food stamps to reduce the rate of a season share. Misfits Market offers no price reduction for food stamp customers (Misfits Market, “Frequently Asked Questions,” 2019). Moreover, when you pick up your share at PFP, you meet farmers from the fields and make friends from the community. I had many delightful encounters with Vassar faculty and staff there—even the professor I work for came to collect her share weekly. I also became intimate with the land itself. Throughout the ten weeks of seasonal share, I watched food farmed in the field become vegetables available for CSA collection hours later. One Friday, some friends volunteered to harvest the potatoes, which we collected on Saturday and roasted on Wednesday: farm-to-fork at its finest.

Yesterday I hesitantly signed up for my first Misfits Market box. This Friday I will be opening the box as an investigator eager to ethically examine its contents. I’ll be following up with a phone call to Misfits Market. In fact, a short phone conversation might be the closest connection I get to the origins of my food and the people behind the process. Unlike my experience with the CSA share, I won’t be meeting the farmers or workers. A brown box will arrive with no connection to the land or labor involved—a box like any other from Amazon. And just like an Amazon prime delivery, I will receive my weird items with no clue where they came from or who harvested each potato or parsnip. I’m sure this box won’t replace the beloved CSA seconds pile or weekly PFP pick-up. After all, ugly produce companies make great headlines and catchy ads, but their deeper consequences are still left to be unpacked.

One Comment

  1. Both an informative and amusing article to chew on! One asks, why are there few ugly foods out there, here’s an answer into which one can sink one’s teeth! Enjoyed this article thoroughly, not only because I know Lindsay and have enjoyed other articles by her, but now I know she will suceed as she fights for fruits and vegetables to be recognized for their underlying qualitites, not just their unblemished exteriors. Nicely done, a good read!

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