The ugly truth about vegetables

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, September 2014

Nurturing the glorious fight against food waste.

Every once in awhile an idea comes along that’s so brilliant in its simplicity it leaves you wondering why no one’s thought of this before. Among the latest is an avant-garde campaign against food waste created and launched by Intermarché, a grocery conglomerate with more than 1800 stores in France. 

We all know food waste: In Canada an estimated one-third of all food produced is wasted at some point between harvest and consumption. We see it in our own kitchens and in the grocery stores where the inventory is constantly being sorted and tossed. Last Sunday my favourite local grocer was discarding an entire display of strawberries because the odd one was beginning to mould. (Think of the pies that never got made.) At another store, unsold fresh-baked goods are picked up on weekday evenings for the food banks and soup kitchens but on the weekend they’re scrunched into garbage pails—hopefully for composting—because transportation isn’t available and storage until Monday is not an option. 

The squandering of all this food is distressing but the wastage in the orchards and fields is even more disturbing. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, more than 30 percent of all fruits and vegetables is discarded at the point of harvest simply because they’re not perfect enough for the consumer. Last fall I walked through a field of slightly oversized rutabagas left behind after the pickers had been through. “They’re just as good as the rest,” the farmer told me (and to which I can attest), “but the stores don’t want them because people won’t buy them.” 

This is where the grocery giant Intermarché saw a chance to do things better. First it arranged with its growers to also begin buying their imperfect produce. Then it rolled out a tongue-in-cheek campaign to introduce a line of “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” (Les Fruits et Legumes Moches) whose only shortcoming is their wonky appearance. Among the featured produce was the Grotesque Apple (“keeps the doctor away as well”), the Disfigured Orange (“makes beautiful juice”) and the Ugly Carrot (“in a soup, who cares?”). 

Intermarché priced them at 30 percent less than the perfect specimens and gave them their own signs and display cases. To win over the sceptics and further bolster the “glorious fight against food waste,” some were used to create a line of beautifully packaged “Inglorious Juices and Soups.” 

The marketing was genius and consumers responded with gusto. In the first two days of the campaign each store sold more than a ton of malformed produce. Instead of putting a dent into the sale of regular produce as Intermarché might have braced itself for, the inglorious produce pulled in its own traffic and increased the overall number of customers by an average of 24 percent per store. Suddenly it was hip to be an inglorious shopper.

With some innovative tinkering, we could accomplish a similar campaign against food waste on our island—which would simultaneously make healthy eating more affordable and enhance both our food security and our farmers’ profit margins. And given how much a perfectly edible fruit or vegetable ploughed back into the ground actually costs in terms of lost resources, from seeds and fertilizer to cultivation costs including fuel, labour and water (soon to become the world’s most precious commodity), it makes absolute sense. 

No doubt grocers will have reservations about selling inglorious produce just steps away from their perfect counterparts, but they could create and market a line of delicious juices and soups featuring these homely local foods. The favourable publicity alone would be worth significant dollars. Growers selling to the stores could set up an inglorious roadside stand for all the rejected produce and thus recoup at least some of the production costs.

Anyone who’s ever had a home garden knows all about inglorious produce, including how tasty and nutritious it is. Knowing how hard we worked to grow it in the first place, we wouldn’t dream of throwing it away. Intermarché is on the right track. Hopefully we, too, can be encouraged to realize that a local “ridiculous potato”—to borrow  Intermarché’s term—mashes up just as nicely as the finest specimen at the Saanich Fair. 

There’s nothing ridiculous about the Inglorious campaign. Hopefully it’s just the first in a long stint of broad-minded exploration for solutions that already exist in our midst. 

Thanks to the bounty of her garden, Trudy made a big pot of inglorious soup while penning this article.