Is Ugly the New Beautiful?

Looks like the ugly stepsister may get a coming-out party. A recent story on Time.com about the growing use of "ugly" food in Europe and Australia, combined with an announcement from Compass Group about its new "Imperfectly Delicious Produce" program, signals the emergence of a potential trend FM readers may want to keep an eye on.

Basically, the "ugly food movement" is an initiative to use up crops that had traditionally been left to rot in the field because they don't meet aesthetic commercial requirements. There is nothing wrong with them. A misshapen carrot or cucumber is still perfectly edible and nutritious; it just doesn't…well, look good.

But now the confluence of a number of factors is aligning to set the table for "ugly food." Most prominently, there's the growing concern about food waste, something many onsite operators know very well. Time.com estimates that a third or more of food produced globally goes uneaten, a fair amount simply because it doesn't pass the eye test (or formal commercial or regulatory standards, which can be pretty ridiculous) before it ever gets a chance to sit on a consumer's plate.

There's also the growing prevalence of organics, which, because they tend to be less uniformly "pretty" than industrial mass-produced crops, have conditioned consumers to seeing less than ideal looking product. In fact, it may have conditioned them to view imperfectly formed fruits and veggies as being "better" because of their organic connotations.

Finally, there's the fiscal realities. It simply makes little sense for farmers to leave a significant portion of their production unsold, even if at a reduced price, while for end users—especially those that only need ingredients, not produce section eye candy—the ugly food represents an economical alternative supply source. If you're going to chop it up for the salad bar or the stock pot, it doesn't really matter what it looks like.

K-12 programs may especially benefit given the pressure fresh fruit and vegetable procurement puts on finances. Already, some districts practice a form of this "gleaning" by buying product such as apples that are smaller than commercial grade but perfect for young lunch line customers.

Granted, there are plenty of issues that need to be resolved before the ugly food movement truly takes flight. The supply chain would have to adjust and harvesting practices modified to include previously discarded pieces, which would also have to be separated from the commercial-grade product. 

Still, given the economics, the social forces and the opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation between producers and users, the ugly food trend may be the start of a beautiful friendship.

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