For years, the ugly ducklings of the harvest gathered by Alberta's Red Hat Co-op – crooked cucumbers, scarred and mottled tomatoes and sunburnt peppers – were shipped to the dump or sold to Hutterite colonies at cost; hundreds of pounds of perfectly tasty produce bypassing the market, all because it wasn't pretty enough for retail shelves.
This fall, the growers decided the discard pile deserved a shot at the shelves: The co-op rebranded less-than-pretty produce as "The Misfits" and started selling them at a discounted price at 11 grocery stores for a month-long trial that ends this week.
"When you're growing vegetables, you just hate to see stuff thrown out, especially stuff that you know there's nothing wrong with it," says Albert Cramer, a member of Red Hat.
The co-op is at the forefront of a movement that is saving ugly but tasty fruits and vegetables from the landfill. In Canada, where food waste costs $27-billion a year and pumps that decompose food emit excessive harmful greenhouse gases into the air, the trend is growing roots both up and down the food chain as growers, suppliers and chefs celebrate real, imperfect produce with the goal of building more sustainable, less wasteful food systems. Around 10 per cent of greenhouse crops are too ugly to meet regular retail standards, says Cramer. That amount climbs to as high as 20 per cent for field-grown produce.
After noticing the rising popularity of marketing ugly fruits and vegetables at food industry shows, the Sterling-Rise Group, an American ad agency that specializes in culinary communication , declared the movement a top culinary trend for 2015.
"There continues to be this cry from the culinary community of, hey, let us help you figure out how to use everything, to be resourceful so we're lighter on the Earth, to not waste," says Kara Nielsen, the Sterling-Rice Group's culinary director.
The movement sprouted in Europe a couple of years ago, but it was a viral marketing initiative from a French supermarket chain that captivated consumers globally this summer: Intermarché's campaign advertising so-called inglorious fruits and vegetables at a discount was wildly popular on social media, and the chain sold 1.2 tons of ugly produce in the town of Provins, France during the first two days of the promotion.
The Misfits have seen similar success in Alberta: all 11 stores have been selling out of the disfigured crop marked at a 30-per-cent discount – that's 5500 pounds of produce moving a week, says Mike Meinhardt, in charge of sales and marketing at Red Hat. They hope to work with growers outside the co-op next year to make more Misfits available. Safeway spokesperson Betty Kellsey agrees the customer response to the campaign has been positive, but adds they have not yet decided if they will repeat the initiative.
In Montreal, a new startup called Second Life is also jumping on the trend; Co-founders and university students Quentin Dumoulin and Thibaut Martelain, who are childhood friends from Lyon, France, have already rescued 1000 pounds of ugly produce from a dozen farms and are planning to launch an e-commerce website so that people can grocery shop for the outcasts online.
"Most of the stuff we get is either too small or too big for [retail standards] – it's not even really ugly," says Dumoulin, but they gladly accept too-tiny potatoes and giant radishes alongside two-headed celery root, hail-marked butternut squash and eggplants with noses.
Rachel Engler-Stringer, a community health professor at the University of Saskatchewan and president of the Canadian Association for Food Studies, says the popularity of processed food plays a role in promoting unrealistic standards for produce.
"The supermarket model that currently exists is one in which vegetables and fruit are expected to look perfect," says Engler-Stringer. "The standards need to change, and part of the way they can change is us actually seeing what vegetables and fruit really look like."
Agri-industry expert Martin Gooch says we shouldn't shoulder supermarkets with all the blame. "Consumers expect retailers to meet those standards," says Gooch, who is CEO of Value Chain Management International, a consulting company that conducts research about food waste.
"The challenge to retailers is how do they offer ugly fruits and vegetables without undermining the value of their other [produce]," says Gooch. "It's great on paper, I fully support it in principle, but from a commercial perspective it poses challenges."
For Red Hat growers, finding a home for forgotten produce is more about reducing food waste than turning a profit.
"What we're trying to do as a co-op is trying to market this and put some value to it," says Cramer. "You move more of your product, it's money in your pocket. But it's not even so much about the money, it's just then you don't have to throw stuff out."
Provender, a Montreal-based company that connects farmers and chefs, is doing its part to get retail-rejects into restaurants. Co-founder Caithrin Rintoul says that some chefs want ideal crop for plate presentation, but others like the challenge of conquering awkward produce, like the huge, overgrown stalks of mustard greens that Rintoul recently sold to restaurants.
"This is produce that is as unwieldy and unappealing as you can possibly imagine, but they have a pride in the way they can transform them," he says. "It just makes more interesting food – serving stuff that's not conventional is more exciting."
Other food industry players, like juice bars, soup shops and jam-makers, process fruits and vegetables extensively and have traditionally been a perfect match for produce that doesn't make Grade A; they know full well when you choose from the ugly pile, you are not sacrificing taste. "We love to have different vegetables," says Caroline Dumas, the chef behind a Montreal chain of restaurants called Soupesoup. "I hate having the same size. It looks like it's not natural – to have the same size, to have the same colour – I'm afraid of that kind of vegetable actually," says Dumas.