Ugly food: a solution to food wastage?

Ugly food: a solution to food wastage?


We buy the plants, we get the ground ready. We’re waiting two or three months before we finally get it there. We’ll be waiting the whole season to make money. And then you can just get a hail storm that will clean you up. It’s coming close to harvest time for Hawkesbury farmer Manuel Cherry. And with a harvest, will come the waste. Sometimes you get 20% waste sometimes you get 40%, sometimes up to half, 50%. Here we have a lettuce that has frost damage from the cold weather. Just peel the lettuce off and it’s just like a normal lettuce. Costs us 50 cents. The growers put their heart and soul into it. Worth nothing. We do get frustrated with the supermarkets but we have to try and stick by their guidelines because we have to try and match their specs. Horticulture Australia says about a quarter of food produced here never leaves the farm. This is our kale, size is a bit too short. Not good for the market, so it goes to waste. No good. But now there’s at least some relief for farmers like Manuel. Who says you’re not eligible for supermarkets? Who!? You’ve got to start believing in yourself. This is ugly food, French style. Introduced last year by the Intermarche supermarket chain and picked up nationwide here by Woolworths and NSW retailer, Harris Farms. It’s hardly hideous, but discounted by up to 50%. It’s just come up to a year now and we’re really excited because we’ve just tipped over two million kilos of food saved from waste. Two million kilos is about fifty semi-trailers full of food. We started in November 2014. Since launching, we’ve actually turned over 16,000 tons of Odd Bunch that typically wouldn’t make it into our supermarkets. Just due to physical imperfections and the specifications that we previously had. Compare the total sale of fruit and vege, and those quantities aren’t large. We wouldn’t be talking 10%, it would be in the single digits in fruit and vege. Woolworths sells about a third of Australia’s fruit and vegetables. Ugly food accounts for just 1% of that turnover, but it is slowly growing and can make a difference. I think it could make up to 20 or 30% difference. It will help. It just helps get back your expenses. It’s kind of thin, it’s not round. It’s kind of a funny shape and quite pale in colour. And I compare that to a regular pink lady apple, and that’s selling at $3.99 per kg This one is selling at $1.99 per kg. I don’t really mind buying imperfect vegetables, especially if they’re discounted. For me, the appearance doesn’t worry me. It’s the same. Just because there is a mark, if you had a birthmark on your face that doesn’t make you a bad person. Despite initiatives like ugly food, a huge amount is still being thrown out before it reaches the consumer. Every day at least some of it is rescued by charity OzHarvest, and distributed to the needy. We’ll pick up anything that’s edible, basically. The most common foods would be fruit and vegetables. And that’s what we aim for most of the time as well. It’s not quite pretty enough. It’s not quite bright-coloured enough. The retailer might think that we don’t want to buy that. The amounts are staggering, totally staggering. Aesthetics is the main reason food is being thrown out. Some of the produce just doesn’t look how people expect it to look. OzHarvest is only collecting about four million kilos of food. I can tell you that there is still millions of kilos that we aren’t tapping into. Riding with OzHarvest also reveals that there might be strong commercial reasons inhibiting the growth of ugly food. There is a limit to how much you can sell off as ugly but interesting produce only a mother could love. Until the point at which it’s taking sales away from first class sales where you’re making top dollar. As mercenary as that sounds, if you start selling stuff to people that takes away from your premium sales you’re in a sub-optimal position. It’s not ideal. Every single retailer absolutely wants to sell their top produce at top price. So of course there is a conflict endemic in the issue of bringing in food that is cosmetically ugly and therefore is sold at a lower price. Hey, Look! There’s one, Clara. Don’t pick it, but that’s going to be a strawberry. But even if ugly food does catch on there are those who believe it will just transfer the waste to the consumers’ end of the chain. Everybody should be eating ugly food, but ugly food should not necessarily be cheaper food. What we’re dealing with is a society that’s got a food waste issue because we’ve got an overconsumption issue. The price, the cheaper something is, the more we’re likely to buy it and the less we’re likely to value it. I think it would be fantastic if supermarkets actually stocked ugly food as normal food. Realistically though, it will be a long time before supermarkets lower their top price specifications. We wouldn’t lower to get closer to the Odd Bunch. There’s customers that have an expectation of good quality produce when they walk into our supermarkets. If we have a whole stack full of these imperfect ones, and compare that in sales to a stack of perfect ones if they were at the same price. These ones would sell half as much. Supermarkets have created this standard of what food should actually look like. We’ve actually seen a significant shift towards ‘supermarket-fication’ of food and the food system that’s become Big Food. So they’ve actually changed the way food looks, but then they continue to blame the consumer for expecting food to look that way, and for wanting to pay certain prices for food that looks a particular way. I don’t know, I guess you sort of eat with your eyes so you know, you see it, it looks great. It looks fresh and vibrant, looks enticing and you kind of want to grab some. We as consumers need to be less fussy. We need to take a stand and say, we want our produce as it grows. We don’t want produce that’s just been made to fit straight on shelves. And definitely, there is a huge responsibility on the retailers. Ultimately it’s this sort of gross inefficiency rather than consumer and retailer tastes which could end up dictating the long-term popularity of ugly food. I think over time, the resources that are chewed up in the production as they become scarcer will become more expensive. Therefore the food itself becomes more expensive, therefore there will be a more economic reason to utilise all the food that is produced. If that is the case, for Manuel Cherry that time simply can’t come soon enough. You put a lot of work and effort into it, and you don’t get rewarded sometimes. Like the people who are buying it, they don’t really understand because they haven’t been through it. They’re looking always for the better stuff. But they understand to buy our imperfect stuff. It really helps us.

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