Twisty carrots, lopsided apples and eggplants with interesting scars aren’t something you normally see at your local supermarket. But you can get them delivered straight to your door thanks to businesses across Canada dedicated to fighting food waste — and its greenhouse gas emissions
The bonus? Amid rising food prices
, eating “ugly produce” could save you money.
Supermarkets have strict cosmetic standards
for fruits and vegetables — they need to be relatively uniform in size and shape, without blemishes such as scarring. Produce that doesn’t meet those standards is hard to sell and can end up in landfills.
A number of Canadian online grocers are now offering farmers a chance to sell that produce at a deep discount compared to similar fruits and veggies at the supermarket.
“As long as you can cut out a little blemish, you’re paying half the price for a 95 per cent usable product,” said Micky Tkac, senior director of produce for online grocer Spud.ca, which has customers in Calgary, Edmonton and B.C.’s Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and Thompson Okanagan regions.
Tkac started to offer "imperfect produce" alongside Spud.ca’s other groceries in 2016, after being struck by the near-perfect appearance of fruits and vegetables in Canadian supermarkets, which was so different from what he saw growing up in Slovakia.
Companies that offer only imperfect and "surplus" produce say they’ve seen a lot of growth lately amid rising food prices. In fact, some say a key goal is making fresh fruits and vegetables more accessible to all.
“It's been really nice to see that people are able to actually afford eating nutritious, whole foods,” said Divyansh Ojha, founder and CEO of London, Ont.-based FoodFund, which serves southwestern Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area.
They also say they’ve had a big impact on food waste. Thibaut Martelain started Montreal-based Marché Second Life in 2015 after being inspired by France’s efforts to fight food waste
, and says the company has rescued 1,500 tonnes of food since then.
Both Marché Second Life and FoodFund have expanded beyond produce to offer products like cheese and packaged foods that can’t be sold due to problems such as errors on their packaging or that were somehow produced in surplus.
Some companies also have other ways to reduce waste besides selling to customers. Spud.ca donates what it doesn’t sell to charities. Ojha said his company has managed to divert about 4,500 tonnes of food, by not just serving customers but also connecting food producers with food processors who might not otherwise find each other.
Some may wonder: why isn’t all imperfect produce processed into things like juices, sauces and canned soups? Martelain said there are more manufacturers that want to process certain items, such as oranges, compared to others, such as cauliflowers and eggplants, and the quantity needed may not match what’s available.
Ojha added that large processors may not care about the appearance of the tomatoes or apples they use, but may not be able to get the steady and reliable supply they need if they specifically target lower-grade ingredients. For all these reasons, relying on food processors isn’t a complete solution to food waste.
For the same reasons, customers who choose to buy only imperfect and surplus produce will get more of some types of fruits and vegetables (such as apples, beets and yams) than others (berries). This may require a different approach to meal planning, Odja acknowledges.
That said, most of the produce that these companies sell is surplus and may not be "ugly" at all. Ojha said that’s one of his customers’ most common “complaints” when they get their first delivery.
While these efforts are diverting a lot of food waste, some suboptimal produce is still being missed.
Sang Le, co-founder of Peko Produce in Vancouver, noted that because misshapen produce is hard to sell, a lot of it actually gets left at the farm and is never harvested.
“So that’s something that we’ve been thinking about how to tackle.”
— Emily Chung