Read: Why Americans lead the world in food waste
If successful, ugly-produce companies could help with the vanishingly thin margins faced by smaller-scale growers and expand access to fresh food. But not everyone is buying it: Food-justice advocates argue that profit-based solutions are unequipped to do battle against food inequality, and that even well-meaning companies could do real harm to community organizations. Depending on who you ask, ugly produce is either the salvation or destruction of America’s food system. The reality of its potential impact might be a little more complicated, with start-ups profiting from the food system’s structural problems while also providing real, material good for working-class people.
It seems as though “ugly” produce companies didn’t anticipate the criticism they’ve received. On a fundamental level, some researchers question whether Americans’ understanding of food waste as a crisis actually reflects the problem at hand. Last week on Twitter, the crop scientist Sarah Taber wrote a long thread arguing that ugly produce isn’t the problem or solution. “The food system is a hot mess but using ugly produce is one thing it’s actually really good at,” she says in the thread. In her estimation, my carrot nuggets are proof of concept: Odd produce might not go to Whole Foods, but much of it still does go to stores that serve working-class people, or gets sent to processors who turn it into salsa or apple juice. (Taber did not return a request for comment.)
The vast majority of American produce does indeed make it to a packinghouse for processing and distribution, but farmers point out that efficiency varies wildly depending on what kind of producer you are. According to David Earle, the business manager for the farm collective Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative, in Pennsylvania, around 20 percent of the produce from his organization’s small growers doesn’t meet stringent grocery-store or restaurant standards. “If they don’t sell because we don’t have an outlet and we have too much product, they’d likely just go bad,” he says.
Dana Gunders, a food-sustainability researcher who wrote the Natural Resources Defense Council’s 2012 report on food waste, says that Tuscarora’s problem is not unique for growers of its size. “You wind up with a situation at times where it actually does not make financial sense to harvest the product,” she says. Tuscarora has started distributing its excess produce through the ugly-produce-box company Misfits Market, and Earle says it’s been a boon to the business. “It’s good for us. It’s good for the farmer who’s not getting nothing for the product,” he says. “Misfits Market gave us an outlet to move these products and not just feed them to the cows.”
Other farmers are less enthusiastic. Terra Organics, based in Washington, shut down at the end of last year, and its owners cited the emergence of ugly-produce companies as among the reasons it was going out of business. In an interview with The New Republic, Imperfect Produce, the start-up that serves Terra Organics’ former community, conceded that it occasionally works with industrial-scale producers like Dole to source food, which critics say can make these start-ups an ally of exactly the food system that creates waste and hunger in the first place. If affluent consumers can feel as if they’re making ethical purchases while enjoying the savings and convenience of wonky vegetables delivered from commercial producers, they might be less likely to buy from local producers and cooperatives.