The Beautiful Upside of Ugly Produce | Civil Eats

The Beautiful Upside of Ugly Produce

How Canadian project the Misfits has expanded to 300 U.S. stores, making ugly produce successful for shoppers and retailers alike.

At a time when over half of all the nation’s produce is going to waste due to cosmetic reasons, so-called ugly produce has captured the world’s attention. Since 2012, 16 countries around the world have embraced the call to save less-than-perfect foods from landfill. In the U.S., the market for ugly produce is really picking up speed as a number of grocers have begun ugly-food program in the past year.

The Misfits brand of ugly produce, which Meijer Supermarkets just began selling in 35 of its U.S. stores, is the most expansive ugly-produce program in the country, carried in more than 300 stores across three supermarket chains in the U.S. alone.

misfits brandingCraig Arneson, General Manager of Sourcing for Robinson Fresh, says the product line’s whimsical branding (shown at right) has been a big part of the program’s success. “The [Misfits] brand helps make the cosmetically challenged acceptable,” he said.

While the Misfits are becoming increasingly well-known in the States, their success has been a product of a lot of hard work. Mike Meinhardt, Sales and Marketing Manager at Alberta-based produce distributor Red Hat Growers, launched the product in Canada in 2015, and he and the other stakeholders involved in the process have learned what it takes to successfully develop and sell an ugly-produce program to both retailers and consumers.

In 2014, Meinhardt took some of his chef-customers on a tour of one of a greenhouse.

“One chef asked about the orange bins”—which were full of imperfect produce that had to be thrown out,” he recalled. “The chefs all stopped and went through it and all agreed that it was perfect for them and should not be thrown out.”

From there—with some help from Meinhardt’s family, who echoed the idea that ugly produce should not be wasted—Red Hat partnered with Minnesota-based Robinson Fresh, one of the largest produce companies in the world. This led to the September 2015 launch of a small pilot Misfits program at Associated Foods stores in Utah. The short-lived program helped Robinson Fresh fine-tune its marketing and logistics.

Other Similar Efforts

The Misfits are not alone in their effort to bring ugly fruits and vegetables, with all of their unique imperfections and anthropomorphic shapes, to the masses. In fact several major grocery stores have embarked on their own similar projects in recent years. Walmart has marketing a limited selection and done promotions around single item as limited campaigns. Raley’s supermarkets’ also created a Real Good partnership with Imperfect Produce, but that program was short-lived. Ben Simon, Imperfect’s CEO, said that the “Raley’s staff person spearheading the program [moved] on, which caused the momentum on the pilot to halt.”

Whole Foods also launched a partnership with Imperfect in 2016 with a handful of stores. Now, a year into operation, it has expanded to 20 stores in Northern California.

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And Giant Eagle launched it’s Produce with Personality program in Pennsylvania in 2016 and has since expanded to Ohio.

How the Misfits Program Works

Unlike other stores’ efforts, the Misfits is a committed, year-round program that offers four to eight produce types at a time, depending on what’s in season—they include curled-up cucumbers, misshapen mandarins, and bent bell peppers. The produce sells for 20 to 40 percent less than conventionally attractive fruits and vegetables.

Red Hat Growers works with farmers to source the misfit produce and get it to stores. With 20 billion pounds of produce wasted before it reaches grocery stores, in the U.S. alone, there is no shortage of cosmetically challenged produce to choose from.

Meinhardt says produce becomes less desirable to stores for many reasons. Too much sun—or not enough—extremely high or low temperatures on farms, rainfall, wind, and many more factors can make produce less-than-perfect. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) grading standards classify fruits and vegetables from a number 1 for perfect, or numbers 2 and 3 for the “ugly” stuff. But these standards are only guides, and they’re only part of the problem. Purchasers for supermarkets and their buyers or suppliers often go above and beyond the USDA’s ranking system, and enforce even higher standards for “number ones” in order to fill their shelves with picture-perfect produce.

Although supermarkets have traditionally ignored the potential of ugly-produce programs, that is quickly changing with the flurry of new programs in the U.S.

“One thing we’ve learned from trialing this program is that it truly needs to be holistic. It’s paramount to the success of the program to have collaboration at all levels of the organization” said Robinson Fresh’s Arneson. He also described some key planning steps: “Before launching the Misfits program with any retailer, we make sure they are supportive of the price, the sustainability component, the branding, and the cadence of receiving the produce.”

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A number of factors have helped the Misfits—and other ugly-produce programs—take root in the U.S. With just seven major retailers in Canada, the options for getting ugly produce to market are not as plentiful as in the U.S.—and Loblaw, the largest grocer, already has its own ugly-produce program, Meinhardt said it’s easier to find a retailer willing to “commit and allocate shelf space” among the many options in the U.S.

Robinson Fresh has also found that “Millennial buyers are showing a stronger voice in the marketplace with their dollars, and they typically trend toward food with a cause,” Arneson said.

Connecting to customers in a new way, and one that lifts the veil on the picture-perfect produce aisles we’ve come to expect, also helps expand demand for ugly produce. We are drawn to the imperfect: “We’re all misfits in our own way,” Meinhart said.

Jordan Figueiredo is an Anti-Food Waste Activist from Castro Valley, California who sparks the #LoveTheUgly (produce) movement and inspires others to prevent wasted food with speaking, events, petitions, and writing. Jordan created and manages the @UglyFruitAndVeg campaign on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, with a monthly reach in the millions from followers in more than 190 countries. The Campaign has been featured on the Today Show and in NPR, Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Food and Wine, Upworthy, Ozy, and many others. His work does not represent endorsements, opinions, or views of his employer, CVSan. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Barbara Penning
    An incredible important shift to get nutritious food at a reasonable price to more and more people. Food waste is not sustainable when so many people are stretched financially and could benefit with nutritious food at a discount.
  2. For economic reasons and because I was raised not to throw good food away, I would shop where this program is offered. Could you please tell me where in my area (St. Louis in general or zip code 63126 more specifically) I can find these beautiful Misfits?
  3. It disgraceful that the grocery store leaves produce behind and do not give it to people in poverty, homeless and people on welfare for free.
    The CEO should be fired. your customer service to people with disabilities is extremely poor. your customer service staff not very assertive and have poor customer service skills, people skills, and interpersonal skills. not educated to understand the dynamics of customer service skills. The government should launch a public inquiry and financial compensation for those people who file complaints against customer service, senior management and CEO. I want justice as soon as possible because I have reservations about customer service in the customer my whole life. I have been subjected to overt, systemic and institutional racism as a visible minority in customer service in the private sector my whole life and I want justice.
  4. shane
    Wow I'm so glad the waste of food is being addressed in such a good way, thank you .
  5. This is good news -- or rather, a running start at good news. I had already identified the minimizing of food wastage as one of the keys to solving the problem of hunger. This report confirms that some people out there are starting to very usefully address one of the major causes of that wastage. Yes! Their efforts now need to be further refined and massively scaled up.
  6. Linda
    I think the Ugly Food Program is a great idea...simply because I hate seeing good food go to waste as long as the ugly vegetables are organically grown.
  7. I love all Misfits and the whole program! Please send them to Canada!!!!!
  8. Abigail Howes
    Our country is to worried about "pretty" according to a certain standard. This has applied to everything from food, to people to lawns, to our homes. We expect perfect skin, perfectly shaped noses, arms, legs, feet, toes, fingers and that migrates to the manicured lawn and the perfect carrot or apple. We have had gardens since we were children and we ate the imperfect fruits and vegatables. They were just as tastes as the "pretty" ones. Why must we throw them out. They are good wholesome food, and of high standard quality. They are just "funny shaped", and there needs to be a discount table for these vegatables at ALL groceries. Maybe if we abandoned this perfect standard and learned to love ourselves, our food, our homes and lawns as they are, clean neat and well trimmed, but not "perfect" we might be a happier person for it. Claire Wineland, a teenager with cystic fibrosis, said it perfectly. Our bodies, (or in this case the vegatables) are a work of art, that tells our (or the growth history of the vegatable) history. So our scars, or the vegatable's scars are like the brush strokes of an artist telling the story. In my view, to much perfection is fake, artificial, not real, and with food, wasteful.
  9. D.H.
    Unbelievable!!! 20 BILLION pounds of food wasted before it even gets to the store! That's almost criminal when you think about all the people who are going hungry every damned day!! I'm sure the millions of refugees wouldn't care less what the produce looks like!!!
  10. Robert B. Godwin
    I love misfit and ugly fruits and veggies! Ugly is cheap! Feed me ugly fruits and veggies every day!

    Grocery Outlet should experiment with offering such misfit and ugly fruits and veggies in their local Lacey, WA outlet, where I shop!
  11. johhn walsh
    are there any ugly produce retailers in indianapolis, indiana ?
  12. susan foley
    Hungry people don't "see" ugly, they see life!
  13. Steve Seymour
    I deliver food to homeless kids shelters twice a week in Toronto, great retailers and people at Whole Foods and Panera Breads provide this every week for free. The organizations that prepare the food are not just cooks but nutrisionists, so no liability!
  14. Barbara Mitchell
    The food pantries can also use these fruit and vegetables to feed those that are needy or the less fortunate do to unemployment .
  15. Janice Peavy
    I sure don't mind 2nd or 3rd grade food. I have grown enough of my own that all things don't grow perfect. ( just look at me,lol.) God don't make no mistakes. If you want perfect shapes you have to pick it green and then let it ripen. Then it doesn't have the nutrients or taste that I prefer.
  16. eva
    I am alright with the ugly produce as long as it is healthy to eat without chemicals added to it. I grow fruit on my orchard space as sometimes they are not perfectly formed, but are delicious to eat. I do not like to waste food if it is good to eat in its form.
  17. Diana Christopoulos
    Ugly is beautiful inside, stop the waste
  18. suzanne chapis
    Please give customers the option to buy ugly fruits and vegetables. It is inexcusable to throw away perfectly good food when so many people are hungry! Be known as the grocery chain who shows compassion and heart!
  19. Fanchon Nelson
    If we had imperfect vegetables. We may be able to make a difference in the poor community. Of course this would be a big task to educate.

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