You go to the grocery store, survey the produce, and if you have to pick between a “normal” looking potato and a “ugly” potato that looks like a bunny rabbit, you’re probably going to pick the normal one.  No big deal, who wouldn’t do that?  The problem is this mindset fosters a reality where “Forty percent of all the food in this country never makes it to the table – at a cost of $165 billion to the U.S economy” says NPR.  

FH Garden Bunny Rabbit Potato

And before you make your own inspections there is a veggie beauty pageant that happens along the supply chain resulting in what’s known as ‘ugly produce’ or ‘#2 grade’.  Even though it has the same nutritional value and taste as “normal” produce, it’s evaluated by is-it-weird-looking then divided into #1’s and #2’s.  #2’s find their way to a secondary market where they are sold for heavily reduced prices and end up in processed foods (juices, canned goods, frozen foods), food pantries, or the landfill. 

In the last few years several ugly produce delivery companies have emerged as buyers within this secondary market, creating an ugly produce movement.  Their mission is to end food waste which begs the question, “Is it actually ending food waste?”

Pickling Cucumber that would normally classify as a #2

Food waste is a massive issue that we have addressed at length this summer. But the reason we have so much waste is overproduction.  And the reason we are overproducing is we have embraced an Industrial Agricultural system for the last 80 years.  Farms are run like factories where yield and consistency (sameness, shelf stability) is the name of the game.  So farms are overproducing and grocery stores are overbuying to meet the consumer demand for pretty produce.   

Then enter the ugly produce movement to rescue the unwanted ugly excess.  They buy up the #2’s at a discounted rate, ship to homes around the country, and encourage their customers to embrace ugly produce to divert food waste, while saving some money.  The problem, however, is that our broken Industrial food system doesn’t change when you create a market that monetizes its overproduction.  It certainly isn’t the goal of these companies but who’s to say it isn’t causing further overproduction?  With Venture Capitalists involved, it’s a growing and competitive market that demands results.  Farms, wholesalers, and retailers have no motivation to change because now they’re getting paid even for their excess.

We spoke about this recently with Dee Dee Digby of InterNatural Marketing, a broker for medium to large farmers on the east coast.  When we asked if ugly produce home delivery is alleviating our national food waste problem she simply said, “No and I don’t see that it is helping in situations where small farms must harrow fields because they cannot find a home for the produce. When it started, (early 2016) I was connecting them to farmers who were in trouble but you don’t really see that anymore.  I believe, for the most part, they work with large growers with excess or rejections due to the ease of the transactions. These companies utilizing “ugly” produce are moving quickly, since dealing with perishables, and small farms don’t work for their business models.”

Hickory Hill Farm “Ugly” Carrots

So what is the way forward? We agree with The New Republic who says, “The solution to food waste, then, is not to normalize and monetize ugly produce. It’s to create a system where excess food isn’t produced in the first place.”  We’re not perfect but that is exactly what our community of growers and consumers in Metro Atlanta has been creating for the last 7 years.

It starts with buying from small sustainable farms where “ugly” produce originated!  This year we’re on track to spend $1.4M on small farms who average 70 miles from Atlanta.  And not only are we buying the “#2’s” we’re paying #1 prices for it.  More importantly, buying their produce completely bypasses the irresponsible process of overproduction, overbuying, and strict cosmetic standards.   This week, we have eggplant in our baskets from multiple farms.  During check-in, each farmer mentioned having some “weird looking” ones or smaller units that we could double up (per customer).  This happens regularly at Fresh Harvest and honestly it’s harder and more expensive – but it can and must be done to support local farms on this kind of scale.    

Ashely Rodgers / Rodgers Greens & Roots “weird” eggplant

We then crop plan weeks, months and even years in advance with these local growers, providing them with a guaranteed sales outlet to avoid overproduction.  Farmers are putting seeds in the ground already designated for Fresh Harvest customers.  Finally, Fresh Harvest customers customize the contents of their basket the week prior to delivery enabling us to buy exactly what we need and hold no inventory.  Mitch, from Rise ‘n Shine Farm, put it well when asked, “where do you store your produce” and he said, “in the ground”.     

Josh Johns and Garry Shaw crop-planning with Zac//Hickory Hill Farm

We believe this localized food system is how to truly reduce food waste.  And our customers aren’t just addressing the symptom of food waste, they’re helping end the root problem of industrial overproduction.  Michael Wall of Georgia Organics gave our customers a charge last year when he said, “You are participating in a revolutionary food system that is separate and distinct from a larger one that has a lot of problems with it.  It is the beginning of our next, more long term, truly sustainable food system that has the potential to right a lot of wrongs in terms of environmental and economic disparity.”