The Man Who Uses Ugly Fruit to Make Us Stop Wasting Food

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Why you should care

We have to stop throwing away perfectly nutritious, imperfect-looking produce. Especially when some people don’t have enough food.

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Video by Melanie Ruiz. 

Where most people see a misshapen carrot or bell pepper, Jordan Figueiredo sees a playful karate pose or a cartoonish villain. And no, he’s not the New York-funky contemporary artist you love to hate.

Rather, Figueiredo works as a solid waste specialist at Castro Valley Sanitary District in California and, in his spare time, is unreasonably passionate about wasted food. In that latter capacity, he’s best known for his Twitter handle @UglyFruitandVeg, not to mention its nearly 12,000 followers, which he’s amassed in less than a year. Call it high-conceptual art or social-media-native hilarity; whatever it is, his M.O. is posting photos of the “ugly” fruit you’d avoid at the grocery store or cafeteria, each one of them cleverly captioned with something like “Fine, I’ll just sit here and stew!” or “#StrawFlyBerry.” The handle has fast become beloved by food gurus Michael Pollan, Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters.

Good thing he’s funny, because his cause might otherwise incite a full-on glaze-over. But despite all the hubbub over organic sustainability, whole grains, kale, etc., Americans still throw away about 40 percent of food, according to a report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2012. And for Figueiredo, who also volunteers 30 to 40 hours per week as the U.S. ambassador for Feedback, a global organization aimed at reducing food waste, it’s pretty real — he not only tweets but also does his share of do-gooding. Last fall, Figueiredo created and managed a weeklong series of events in California that has been called the “Woodstock of Food Waste.” Kicking off that week, he organized a meal for 5,000 people made from “ugly” but tasty fruit and vegetables that did not meet supermarkets’ strict cosmetic standards. He’s planning a similar event in New York later this year. 

At 36, Figueiredo is a bit graying, with an earnest grin. He wears glasses and talks about a mile a minute. At home, he’s just as you’d expect: His wife teases him about his tree-hugging tendencies — he’s considered worm composting, but she’s put a stop to that pipe dream; they’ve had to settle for normal curbside. As for his campaign, he’s still trying to get his 4-year-old to be more adventurous with food. They’re getting there — the kiddo likes the pictures, and they’re hoping to grow their own carrots at home. Even the ugly ones!

Grocery stores around the world have conducted pilot programs selling less-than-perfect produce at a discount.

For Figueiredo, the whole thing remains a passion project — he figures people are “more receptive or helpful” when they know this isn’t his job. A California native, he never studied food policy or environmental studies; he took nearly a decade to graduate college, testing out architecture, accounting, business, graphic design and finally sociology. Social work, an original passion, was nixed; he ended up in local government. That’s where he encountered waste for the first time … and he loved it. Yeah, really. At first, working with waste and recycling was just a quarter of his job, but he ditched that role for one that let him work on it full time. 

Today, Figueiredo is one of more than a few people studying the stigma against ugly fruit. There’s no shortage of research around it. Many different factors can cause unusual shapes or inconsistent coloring, according to Amaya Atucha, a fruit crop specialist and assistant professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: genetic mutations, overlapping branches of a fruit tree, nutrient deficiencies or pollination problems. Frost can damage the external tissues and cause scabbing on a fruit’s skin, while light interception can affect coloring. 

Though people do avoid these foods, the research doesn’t support a blanket hatred of cosmetically unappealing food. Especially when it has a Whole Foods-friendly label attached to it. In researching consumer preferences in produce, Chengyan Yue, a horticultural marketing professor at the University of Minnesota, has found that consumers have a slightly higher tolerance for imperfections (in this case, dark spots caused by an edible fungus on Golden Delicious apples) in organic produce versus conventional produce. Women in particular were less willing to tolerate the unpretty stuff. 

At any rate, now might be the time when more and more people are willing to hear the message. Grocery stores around the world have conducted pilot programs selling less-than-perfect produce at a discount. Woolworths in Australia reportedly sold 3.6 million kilos of “odd bunch produce,” at up to a 50 percent savings. France’s third-largest supermarket, Intermarché, launched a popular campaign called “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables,” selling produce at 30 percent off. Grocery stores in Canada, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the U.K. have run similar pilot programs. 

So far, no major U.S. grocery store brand has undertaken such a campaign, but Figueiredo hopes his Twitter feed and the #DemandUgly hashtag will help progress toward that goal. His website lists the Twitter handles of many U.S. supermarket brands so that consumers can contact or tweet them about carrying ugly produce. That might not do the trick, says Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. “It’s not always consumer demand that ends up determining what stores sell,” he says. He suggests taking the campaign to covert depths: Use imperfect produce to make soup, or in restaurants where the customer sees only the finished product. But that, of course, doesn’t make for much of a funky tweet.

This OZY encore was originally published Oct. 3, 2015. 


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