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Meet the man who persuaded Whole Foods to start selling uglier fruits and vegetables


This week, Whole Foods announced that it is moving in the decidedly hip direction of offering less-than-attractive fruits and vegetables to its customers.

When it tests this new offering in a few stores in California, Whole Foods will join a handful of grocery stores around the country that have started experimenting with selling produce that looks — there’s no way of getting around it — pretty gnarly.

Before ugly produce campaigns took hold, fruits and vegetables deemed too aesthetically unappealing to grace grocery store shelves often got plowed under, donated (with no profit for the farmers), or, worse, sent to landfills. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, nearly 20 percent of fresh produce every year goes to waste.

But this produce is no less tasty or nutritious than what’s offered in stores; it’s just cosmetically challenged. Now grocery stores are finding that customers are eager to buy the misshapen fruits and vegetables — if they’re sold at a discount. In Pittsburgh, for example, the local grocery chain Giant Eagle found success with its "produce with personality" campaign.

Whole Foods wants to recreate that magic. With the help of an Oakland food waste startup called Imperfect Produce, it's piloting an ugly produce program in a handful of San Francisco–area stores.

That got me wondering: How, exactly, do you market food that looks pretty unappetizing? To find out, I chatted with the founder of Imperfect Produce, Ben Simon.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows:

Michelle Hackman: What inspired you to help reduce food waste in the US?

Ben Simon: My background is in food waste entrepreneurship. About four years ago, when I was a student at the University of Maryland College Park, my friends and I saw good food going to waste from the campus dining halls, and set up a program called Food Recovery Network to recover the food to local homeless shelters. We called our friends around the country to spread the idea, and a few years later it is now at 179 colleges and has donated well over a million pounds of food.

MH: Were there other people realizing the same thing?

BS: Yes. At the same time, entrepreneurs in other countries around the world were having similar ideas, and the term "ugly produce" was just starting to come into existence in the food waste circles I was running in. I had the idea to create an uplifting and attention-grabbing brand that would own these cosmetic challenges loud and proud in a positive way, not shy away from them.

MH: What used to happen to the misshapen fruits and vegetables Imperfect now sells?

BS: It depends on the particular crop. On the organic side, we source from smaller farms where there is no processor market. So if it weren't for Imperfect, it would go to landfill, compost, or animal feed. For conventional cauliflower, broccoli, celery, and leafy greens, as much as 50 percent of the produce is simply passed over during harvesting due to cosmetic challenges and then tilled back under.

Other conventional items packed in facilities will be shipped away to the landfill, compost, animal feed, or processors. Processors still aren't ideal, because the grower is forced to sell it below cost and often there is no guarantee they can find a buyer, so a lot of it is still wasted.

MH: The whole problem with ugly produce is that it’s pretty visually unappealing. How do you market it?

BS: We often take pictures of what we call our "ugly produce celebrities" and post them online with funny captions. The box that the produce comes in each week for our produce delivery subscription in the Bay has a picture of two carrots that have naturally fused together as one with the caption, "We grew up together." Our bumper stickers are a picture of a misshapen red bell pepper that looks like a scrunched-up face with the caption, "Bite me." Our customers send us their own pictures and puns too. We try to have fun with it.

MH: How do people react to the use of the word "ugly"?

BS: People are looking at the produce in a whole new way. They're no longer seeing this as flawed or worse just because it looks a little different. Our goal is to get people to empathize with the produce. I think every man and woman in America has at some point in their life been called ugly or made to be self-conscious about their appearance. Taking claim to the word "ugly" in a fun way is meant to grab attention and help fit the bizarre struggle that the produce is going through into a frame we can all understand and chuckle at.