On the Beauty of Ugly Produce with Sarah Phillips

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Twenty to 40 percent of the fruits and vegetables grown in America never leave the farm because they don’t meet grocery store standards. This results in billions of pounds of wasted produce every year (1). Sarah Phillips is the founder and CEO of Ugly Produce is Beautiful, an educational campaign to change the public perception of what qualifies as “good” produce. I interviewed Sarah about living through the food revolution in America, the origins of our food waste problem, and how Ugly Produce is Beautiful is working to be a catalyst for sustainable change in the food system.

ME: Can you tell me about yourself and how you got interested in the food waste — and specifically, ugly produce — problem?

SP: From the get-go, I was hooked on gardening, cooking, and baking. But didn’t realize until halfway through life that women, such as myself, could participate professionally in the food business, even though it was always an intense hobby and passion of mine. Besides, there weren’t a lot of food careers open to women nor were there many role models when I was growing up, so I didn’t even consider it. But at least I am doing what I love now!

I spent the first seven years of my life in a suburb in Chicago. I loved it when we picked corn, apples, and tomatoes, and canned our prized pickles and other produce from nearby farms or from our own garden. I remember that my mother won Blue Ribbon Awards at the Illinois State Fair for some of her canned goods. I always helped! Now I realize that I may have been staring at some of the beginnings of the Ugly Produce Problem — standardized produce size, processed food, the rise in factory farms, the beginnings of industrialized food for the masses and the decline of localized food because now, with canned goods and frozen foods, one could get year round produce. We didn’t eat any of it because my mother canned all of her organic vegetables from the garden — besides, she said the stuff in cans was so unflavorful, was lacking in vitamins and had chemicals in it, so she didn’t want her family eating it. We tasted the food from the grocery store, and didn’t like it.

We moved to Los Angeles in 1960, when I was seven. My obsession with food just exploded there. We had year-round lush gardens, edible flowers, and orange, lemon, lime, and avocado trees in our yard. My mother had potted herbs — so many varieties. We also planted drought-resistant gardens, which our green-grass growing neighbors thought was strange. All of this home grown food always ended up in our meals .

Fast forward. I attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, in 1971, in its early beginnings. They were just starting their now famous organic farm, and I was eager to participate. They also had just started a restaurant using produce from their gardens. I tutored children from migrant families in the nearby artichoke fields. This was the beginning of the food revolution in America, although I didn’t know it at the time. I was there. I participated in it. I loved it because the food reminded me of my upbringing. I moved to San Francisco in 1976, right in the middle of the beginnings of the food movement there.

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When I moved to New York City in 1983, the produce in the grocery stores was hideous and flavorless to me. I was really unhappy about that. I used to drive into New York City from where I lived in Westchester County to go grocery shopping at Fairway or Stew Leonard’s in nearby Connecticut, just to get something resembling fresh produce. When Whole Foods opened up in White Plains, I was thrilled. When Blue Hill at Stone Barns opened, I was ecstatic. We used to go apple and blueberry picking in the Hudson Valley when the season permitted, but that was about it for fresh produce.

I started hearing stories about ugly produce and reading about it, and became alarmed and ashamed about our food waste problem. I have now focused my energy on this issue. I know that I have something to contribute. It’s my lifelong love of produce and my experiences with it that have propelled me to do something about it.

ME: Why do you think so much food goes wasted around the world?

SP: There are several reasons. A major reason is that food is cheaper in the United States than nearly anywhere else in the world, aided (controversially) by subsidies to corn, wheat, milk, and soybeans. But the great American squandering of produce appears to be a cultural dynamic as well, enabled in large part by a national “cult of perfection”, deepening hunger and poverty, and inflicting a heavy toll on the environment.

As the the Nation’s highways were being built after World War II, suburbs, or enclaves removed from city life emerged. Larger homes could be built with fancy kitchens. This was also the beginnings of the “Baby Boom” years, a rapid growth of America’s population. As American’s moved farther from their homegrown food source and daily shopping rituals, better refrigeration and food storage became available. Supermarkets in the suburbs were being built in America — at one point at the rate of 3 a day — becoming the central markets for growing families to purchase food. Food factories were being built, and food handling machinery was invented to accommodate the increased need for food storage. The new highways allowed for the distribution of this food farther from its growing source. I believe that food made or sorted in factories had to become more uniform in size and shape to be sorted, frozen, and packed, because of industrial machinery. Then American food companies had to sell the idea of this new food to the American public through Madison Avenue or advertising.

At the same time, new American messages of keeping a clean and spotless house and having a perfect family and marriage were being sold to us by Madison Avenue. We should all live in cookie cutter homes and have cookie cutter families. Even our produce and food should be cookie cutter and look the same. Plus, we could become a disposable society. We could throw away all of our unwanted waste and food in the garbage — discard the TV dinner pans, the cans that the food came in, and the grocery bags we were given at the new supermarkets. And it disappeared somewhere or was picked up by garbage trucks, keeping our homes neat and tidy.

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We believe that the ugly produce problem began at this time with these cultural messages. We started discarding produce that didn’t fit the perfect image of what American’s should be eating. We think the problem grew because we just bought into America’s messages about the American Dream. We felt that we were being progressive and it felt good — the convenience of it all.

ME: Can you describe Ugly Produce is Beautiful’s work and your strategy for reversing the stigma around ugly produce?

SP: The goals of the Ugly Produce Is Beautiful℠ Educational Campaign are multifaceted. We want to be the catalyst of the change at all levels of the supply chain, the only change that will be sustainable and create a true revolution. This movement born in Europe is also in need of an umbrella organization that dispenses information about the ugly produce problem. The issue is complex as it touches upon and interlaces with many important social, political, economic, health, and environmental issues, already on an active discussion table.

Learn more here.

ME: Can you describe/give examples of the impact or progress you have seen so far in terms of people’s perceptions of what they consider “good” produce?

SP: In two years our Instagram account has grown from zero followers to over 45,000. Hundreds have joined our mailing list. Our Ugly Produce is Beautiful Dinner Events have sold out and there have been many published articles about our work. There is increased awareness and discussion about the issue and more retail awareness throughout the world.

ME: What have you learned through your efforts to reduce food waste? Is there anything that really surprised you?

SP: Most waste occurs in the United States in our own kitchens. This is a global movement of producers, retailers, restaurants and consumers to create awareness and revolution in the food industry to reduce food waste and pollution. One of the greatest crimes against the environment that few know about, is our practice of throwing away up to 40 percent of our perfectly good fruit and vegetables in the United States just because they do not meet cosmetic standards.

Ugly produce is part of our larger American food waste problem, although it occurs worldwide. Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year from farm to fork. Ugly produce and uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions. And all those inputs used to produce that food — soil, water, fertilizers, and human labor — are also wasted!

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ME: What are some tips or simple solutions that individuals can use to reduce food waste?

SP: The pressure from American grocery stores and supermarkets to only accept “perfect” produce because of our prevailing agricultural standards and Western cultural beliefs about beauty and perfection leads to a huge amount of produce going to waste, simply because it’s not aesthetically pleasing. Ugly produce is safe to eat, but it is usually misshapen or has minor bruises. It can be larger or smaller, or even have inconsistent coloration or texture than we demand. We’re not talking about rotten or moldy produce or produce which is unsafe to eat.

With 50 million Americans suffering from hunger each year, there is a need for more and better food access. Why not utilize the massive quantity of food that is wasted because it doesn’t look aesthetically pleasing, but is still nutritious and perfectly good to eat? We need to effectively use our resources and stop food waste and the resulting damaging pollution.

Think of all the produce you throw away in your kitchen; Onion skins, carrot and beet tops, apple peels and black bananas. I have a website with over 1100 recipes, food saving and food preventative tips, and techniques on how to use these foods in creative ways instead of feeding landfills. It’s a virtual encyclopedia of food information!

To learn more visit:

Website: http://www.uglyproduceisbeautiful.com/

Instagram: @UglyProduceIsBeautiful

uglyproduceisbeautiful.com
  1. Lee, Anna. “Eat the Crooked Carrot, Save the World.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 13 Mar. 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/eat-the-crooked-carrot-save-the-world/2015/03/13/d6899452-c7fb-11e4-a199-6cb5e63819d2_story.html?utm_term=.ba51532e602a.