When it comes to produce, size matters.
Every year, American grocers toss approximately 26 percent of perfectly good U.S.-grown produce—simply because it doesn’t conform to certain aesthetic ideals. Most grocers don’t bother even trying to sell fruits and vegetables that have cosmetic imperfections like bruises and lumps. According to Ben Simon at Imperfect, a delivery service that sells ugly produce, size, especially, is a factor in determining marketability: “Size is the number one factor leading to grocer-rejected 'ugly' produce,” he says.
The consequence is that Americans are trashing billions of pounds of produce each year, often purely because it’s a little on the small (or large) size. But as any small fruit producer will tell you, bigger isn’t always better. And the environmental impact of such widespread waste is huge: Approximately 80 percent of the country’s fresh water is used to support our agriculture system, which is primarily employed with growing our food. Additionally, when you factor in the energy that's used growing, packing and transporting our food, 33 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in this country can be attributed to the food system.
Farmers and activists like Nikiko Masumoto, of the Masumoto Family Farm in Central California, are at the forefront of the cause to get shoppers and grocers more invested in small fruit consumption. At the Masumoto Family Farm, Nikiko says, they’re purposely growing the produce smaller—not just as a way to save water in a state plagued by crippling drought, but also because they’ve found that some small fruits actually taste better. For the June Crest peach, specifically, Nikiko said, “we tested the sugar content and found that it was higher for the smaller version.” Those small peaches are actually sweeter.
Growing small fruit that’s delicious and sustainability-friendly is one thing—selling it is another. The Masumotos have struggled to get their products on grocery store shelves; even when they do, they’re only able to charge half the market rate for a box of peaches or nectarines that has smaller fruits in it but weighs the same overall.
This isn’t a problem unique to the Masumotos: Small produce farmers in general have a harder time selling their goods at the same rates as those who sell more conventional-sized fruits. The smaller produce is not as easy for grocers to stack, and shoppers also play a role: We usually go for the larger-sized fruit or vegetable, leaving the smaller ones behind.
“My tomatoes fall in a niche between large rounds and cherry/grapes, so grocers don’t know what to do with them or how to capture value from them,” said Harry Klee, a scientist who developed and grows a tomato so delicious that Slate actually dubbed it “perfect." “Most commercial growers are not paid for flavor. Wholesalers and retailers can and frequently do take a decent tomato and make it terrible by refrigeration. So their attitude is ‘why should we even try?”
When small produce doesn’t sell, it’s sometimes sent to processors or juicers, and sometimes to the landfill. But more often, it’s left in the field to be plowed back into the soil. In America, one in six people are food insecure, which means that at some point during the year (and often many times), they do not know where their next meal will come from. Beyond that, more than four in five Americans have fruit and vegetable deficiencies. Meanwhile, food waste is creating 13 percent of our human-made greenhouse gas emissions each year.
We can’t afford to waste so much produce. For now, companies like Imperfect (for which, full disclosure, I work as an adviser) are trying to jump-start change by making those irregular, so-called “ugly” items available to shoppers. Just a few weeks ago, thanks to Imperfect, the West Coast grocer Raley’s featured some delicious—but slightly smaller than average—pears on its shelves.
According to Klee, there are signs that shoppers, too, are starting to seek out more sustainable, or at least tastier, options—especially when they’re aware that they exist. Thanks to word of mouth, not to mention that Slate article, demand for his tomato seeds is growing steadily.
“We got 600 new orders in the week immediately following the Slate article. Prior to that, we had about 450 over two months,” he said. “Word of mouth and social media really can be very powerful.”
Find out more about the growing “ugly” produce movement at my social media campaign @UglyFruitAndVeg on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. And if you want to take action to reduce the massive impact of cosmetic standards on produce, check out the UglyFruitAndVeg Campaign petition to Walmart and Whole Foods at www.Change.org/WhatTheFork.