Americans are throwing away tons of “ugly food” each year, causing widespread food insecurity

What’s not to love?
What’s not to love?
Image: woodleywonderworks via CC BY 2.0
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Growing up in the countryside, I ate my fair share of ugly carrots, and despite their appearance, they were delicious. However, the hundreds of ugly carrots I enjoyed would have never made it to supermarket shelves or through restaurant kitchen doors with today’s high cosmetic standards.

From measuring the millimeters of a cucumber’s curve to fearing a bird-like tomato, industry standards and consumer perceptions determine what produce is pretty enough to sell. This is a surface-level judgment that fails to consider the item’s nutritional value and the 48.1 million food-insecure people in the US who would benefit from the energy, vitamins and minerals on the inside.

In a country where nearly 40% of the food supply is never eaten and 20% never even ends up in grocery stores (primarily because it looks bad), the number of food-insecure people is unacceptable. Our hunger issue is partially an image problem. The millions of Americans who support anti-hunger initiatives believe this, too. Yet our collective efforts to end hunger are often undermined by the inefficiencies before food even reaches the consumer.

The “ugly food movement” is one way to address food waste. It’s spreading globally with initiatives from UK supermarket chain Tesco and is gaining momentum in the US with efforts from Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin’s #LoveUglyFood campaign and grocery chains like Raley’s in California. But more can be done.

By examining the losses that occur during harvest to the waste that occurs post-harvest, we gain insight not only into our inefficiencies but also into possibilities for improvement.

Harvesting loss

Damage from insects, disease and weather, along with the economics of supply and demand, are several risk factors in growing produce. To hedge these risks, growers often choose to over-plant, resulting in surplus crop and 7% of planted fields in the US remaining unharvested every year. Government subsidies for farmers to not harvest their crops only exacerbate the problem.

Packaging problems

As food moves from the field toward the table, opportunities to rescue what would be thrown away are numerous. For example, produce that doesn’t meet cosmetic standards—size, shape and blemishes—are the first to get tossed as they don’t sell. City Harvest has received more than a few ugly carrots from food donors that recognize it’s what on the inside that counts.

Distribution disappointment

The transportation and distribution process has become significantly more efficient over time with advancements in truck refrigeration technology and greater fuel economy. Rather than the proper utilization of temperate controlled vehicles, today the largest problem is the rejection and dumping of perishable shipments when food arrives at its destination and the would-be buyer forgoes picking it up. This results in the loss of millions of pounds of food every year.

Realities of retail

In the US, the USDA estimates that supermarkets throw away $15 billion worth of unsold produce alone each year. Many restaurants in the US have excess food as well.

How do we fix these weak links in the supply chain? Last week’s announcement of the USDA-EPA joint initiative to reduce food waste in America by 50% by 2030 is an important step forward and more can be done. The ugly food movement has been steadily growing this summer, and efforts like these can help increase the popularity of imperfect looking food and put pressure on supermarkets to lower cosmetic standards.

By eating ugly food and raising your voice around the opportunities to reduce food waste in the supply chain, you become a key link to ensuring a little girl or boy in the country, a food-insecure family in the city and those in need in between have access to the healthy food. Together, we are responsible for rescuing and channeling a greater amount of food, ugly carrots included, to the tables of hungry Americans.

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Image by woodleywonderworks on Flickr, licensed under CC-BY-2.0.