Ugly produce is midway through a massive makeover.
Misshapen potatoes, multi-pronged carrots and past-their-prime apples — rebranded as “cosmetically challenged” and “beautiful in their own way” — are coming into vogue. Campaigns aimed at reducing food waste are bringing these fruits and vegetables, previously reserved for hogs, compost piles and landfills, to the forefront of our minds, if not quite to our grocery shelves.
And now, food entrepreneurs are picking them up as ripe for innovation.
“Entrepreneurs don’t create culture. They take advantage of where there’s a need,” said Dan Barber, co-owner and chef of Blue Hill in Manhattan, who for three weeks this spring turned his prominent eatery into a pop-up he called Waste-ED featuring dishes such as charred pineapple core and “dumpster dive” salad. “But they don’t get to do that if the culture isn’t there to support it.”
Barber has had help in influencing the country’s perception of what’s edible. Food waste is the subject of a new documentary called “Just Eat It” that premiered on MSNBC in April. And Barber’s pop-up opened less than a week after Dana Cowin, editor of Food & Wine, launched a #loveuglyfood campaign during a speech at TEDx Manhattan; it follows the success of similar initiatives in Europe.
“If we could take what we once thought was ugly and see it as beautiful, we could reduce food waste and change the world,” Cowin declared on stage.
Elizabeth Bennett was sitting behind her that day.
A food systems academic-turned-entrepreneur, Bennett launched her food-waste-focused business in Washington in the fall. Fruitcycle has since turned more than 9,000 pounds of excess apples into neatly packaged dehydrated chips sold at stores throughout the city.
She handed Cowin a bag of the cinnamon-flavored snacks after her speech, as if to say, “Ugly food solutions, Exhibit A.”
“I didn’t know I was going to be part of a trend,” Bennett, 29, said afterward on a Friday afternoon at Mess Hall, a culinary incubator in Northeast Washington where she runs her business.
At her elbow, one of Fruitcycle’s three employees cored, sliced and cut bruises from a new batch of apples that, after surviving the winter in storage, were no longer in their prime. Along with giving those apples a purpose, Bennett works with local nonprofit groups to hire women who’ve previously been incarcerated or homeless.
During apple-growing season, the small team gleans much of its supply from what’s left in the orchard at regional farms, or farmers hand over their excess from storage. Fruitcycle pays for the produce, which would otherwise go to animals, compost piles or landfills. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Hierarchy says feeding people is a better use.)
Bennett, originally from New York, has grappled with big-picture food issues since receiving a master’s degree in food anthropology from the University of London and interning at Slow Food UK. She fielded her own question about whether she’s making an impact on the food waste equation:
“Am I going to make a large dent? No,” she said, dusting apple shards from the top of a dehydrator. “But, as my mom would say, ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’ ”
Forty percent of food in the United States goes uneaten, a statistic that has been widely circulated since the Natural Resource Defense Fund issued a report on the subject in 2012. Or, as “American Wasteland” author Jonathan Bloom puts it, we could fill the Rose Bowl stadium every day with the food we waste in this country.
Many nonprofits and government agencies link that excess to a sobering shortage: the one in six Americans who lack a reliable supply of nutritious food. Taken together, they’re arguably our food system’s worst dichotomy.
But waste — or excess supply, by another name — also presents a business opportunity.
“We think a for-profit business is the way to solve” food waste, said Evan Lutz, the 22-year-old chief executive and co-founder of Hungry Harvest, a community- supported agriculture (CSA) program that delivers ugly and excess produce throughout the Baltimore-Washington region. “We don’t have to ask for donations or grants. All we have to do is make a sale.”
The business spun off last year from a “recovered food CSA” run by the Food Recovery Network, a national nonprofit launched at the University of Maryland to divert food waste from college campuses to feed the hungry. As a for-profit business, Hungry Harvest still works on the hunger side of the equation by donating a pound of produce to food banks and shelters for every pound sold to customers.
Lutz said his goal is to step into the distribution gap for farmers who’d rather not toss their excess and for customers who are interested in using food that would be otherwise wasted and that is, therefore, less expensive. (Weekly boxes range in price from $15 to $35, about half the typical price of conventional boxes.) The CSA, which draws produce from more than a dozen farms, has diverted 160,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to its 500 customers so far. It’s now expanding into parts of Northern Virginia.
“It just makes sense at so many levels,” Lutz said. “Food doesn’t grow perfect and shiny with a sticker on it. Food grows how food grows . . . and to just throw it away is awful.”
Two college-age entrepreneurs have settled on juice as a “pretty good vehicle for addressing food waste,” creating a purpose for the most misshapen specimens. Georgetown University students Philip Wong, 22, and Ann Yang, 21, launched Misfit Juicery at Mess Hall in the fall as a solution for perfectly good produce going to waste. No one has to know, after all, that the carrot was crooked before it was cold-pressed into liquid.
Winning $6,000 in pitch competitions last year thrust them into business, even as they were still building their supply chain for pockmarked apples and off-color kale to fill their bottles.
“Since we’ve had such a strong response from people in D.C., we’re going to be aggressive about finding more places for seconds and surplus,” said Wong, who has filled in with some “firsts” during the transition.
He graduated this month and is focusing on the business; Yang will graduate next year.
The pair already is squeezing out up to 700 bottles of juice a week for distribution throughout the city, sourcing many of the misfits through local produce deliverer From the Farmer.
Ben Simon said PR campaigns to boost the status of less-than-perfect produce have aided the cause of “food waste entrepreneurs,” an emerging group of which he is a serial member.
The 25-year-old — who founded the Food Recovery Network and then co-founded Hungry Harvest with Lutz and John Zamora — believes in ugly produce distribution so strongly that he moved from the District to California this month to launch a national brand.
“Fruits and vegetables come in every shape and size, just like people,” begins the video for Imperfect’s campaign on crowdfunding site Indiegogo, which earlier this month raised more than $36,000 to get the company off the ground.
Together with two business partners, Simon aims to create America’s first major brand for ugly fruits and vegetables in grocery stores — though Imperfect will kick off with half-price CSA shares in California in July — doing for underappreciated produce in the States what Intermarché’s Inglorious brand did for flawed produce in France last year.
“As entrepreneurs, we talk about filling a gap. This huge paradox of waste and hunger creates a creative tension for us to go in and find solutions,” Simon said.
Nationally, some of food’s biggest players are stepping into the food waste breach as well. Doug Rauch, former president of the Trader Joe’s company, wants to open retail stores around the country that transform past-their-due-date foods into inexpensive prepared meals with his Daily Table concept.
And, after testing a program last year to turn more ugly produce into meals, a large food-service company is expanding it to locations in Pennsylvania and the District this year. Bon Appétit Management and its parent company, Compass Group USA, which serves 8 million meals a day, launched Imperfectly Delicious Produce to improve its supply chain for still flavorful, if flawed, produce from farmers, diverting more than 46 tons of waste in California and Washington state so far.
The company had meetings this month with farmers, distributors and chefs in the Washington region to build supply chains here that would value a hail-dented eggplant as much as its spot-free equivalent, spokeswoman Bonnie Powell wrote in an e-mail.
All this innovation has more of Washington’s food community considering how one person’s waste might become another’s new product line.
Meredith Tomason, owner of RareSweets pastry shop at CityCenterDC, buys the almond meal left over from Udderly Nuts almond milk to use as flour for gluten-free products. She has formed a new partnership with Undone Chocolate to turn the nibs that are a byproduct of chocolate bars into a cold-brewed chocolate drink for summer (one that should pair well with her sweets).
“It’s not necessarily baking, but it’s a way to use something that we had,” she said.
Similarly, Jrink Juicery has teamed with chef Erik Bruner-Yang to turn the produce pulp left from juicing into turmeric vinegar and a Japanese seasoning called furikake. Bruner-Yang uses the ingredients at his Toki Underground and Maketto restaurants and sells them bottled at his Honeycomb shop in Union Market.
Jrink owner Shizu Okusa also has offered her excess to Fruitcycle’s Bennett, who’s testing recipes for veggie-pulp brownies as a new product line.
“For us, it’s either that or compost,” Okusa said. “We’d rather make it . . . for people.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the amount that Misfit Juicery's founders won in pitch competitions last year. It was $6,000. This version has been corrected.
Pipkin, a freelance journalist in Alexandria, blogs at thinkabouteat.com.