Ugly is Beautiful: Grocers Reduce Food Waste by Embracing Misshapen Product

Close-up of tomatoes on display in store

Consumers’ willingness to “buy ugly” is building inroads into the nation’s significant food waste problem.

CNBC reports 43 billion pounds of food were thrown out of grocery stores in 2008, representing some 10 percent of all food purchased from such stores that year.

The Food Waste Reduction Alliance is chipping away at that number. Founded in 2011 by the National Restaurant Association, Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute, the group has spearheaded cross-industry programs that keep billions of pounds of food waste out of landfills each year.

Major Change by Offering Misshapen Produce

One major contributor has been 242-store Midwest grocery chain Hy-Vee, Inc.

The consumer-owned corporation singlehandedly diverted millions of pounds in the four months after it launched its “Misfits” produce program in January. That’s when the Iowa-based chain began offering fresh and high-quality (but misshapen) fruits and vegetables at lower costs, giving the nonstandard produce a lower chance of being tossed out by growers and suppliers. Minnesota-based Robinson Fresh, one of the largest produce vendors in the world, is its partner in the venture.

“There is product left in the field because farmers don’t think there’s a market for it,” explains Robinson Fresh General Manager Hunter Winton in Progressive Grocer. “(Now), farmers have an outlet to sell more produce, and customers have an opportunity to save money and help reduce waste.”

How does the program work?

Each week shipments of produce in four to six Misfit categories — foods like peppers, cucumbers, squash, apples and tomatoes — are delivered to stores based on what’s in season. They’re sold under special signage at an average 30 percent discount. “We are thrilled Misfits fruits and vegetables have been so well received by our customers in such a short time,” notes chain VP John Griesenbrock. “(It’s) an encouraging sign.”

Hy-Vee also combats food waste through food donation and diversion efforts in the communities it serves.

More Large Retailers Join the Fight to Help Grocers Reduce Food Waste
The Iowa chain isn’t the only one latching on to the trend. Last year Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest grocer (2015 sales were about $167 billion), began testing sales of weather-beaten apples and so-called “Spuglies” (smaller and/or misshapen potatoes) in 400 of its stores.

Whole Foods also announced a deal with San Francisco-based Imperfect Produce last year to test sales of cosmetically odd fruits and veggies in some of its California stores. The chain also buys such produce for its prepared foods and juice and smoothie bars. Similarly, Pennsylvania-based grocery chain Giant Eagle (with 420 stores) announced last summer it would partner with a local firm to accept (and price differently) imperfect produce. Maine-based Hannaford launched similar trials in 14 of its New York-area stores in May of 2016.

“Whether you call them surplus, excess, seconds or just plain ugly, these are fruits and vegetables that may face rejection because they’re not considered perfect-looking,” Giant Eagle spokesman Daniel Donovan told NPR. “But it’s the taste that matters.”

Satisfying Results by Reducing Waste

Last year alone, food waste solutions implemented by retail and wholesale grocery operations were responsible for diverting 1.5 billion pounds, 54 percent of which were recycled, 28 percent of which were disposed of in other ways and 18 percent of which were donated.

To learn more about the cost saving benefits of reusables, click here.

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