What Is The ‘Ugly Food Movement’? An Explainer


"It looks sorta like a butt. Throw it away!"

Jonathan Bloom’s book American Wasteland was published in 2010, but it wasn’t really until this year that the expansive problem of food waste in the United States drew the attention of the likes of Last Week Tonight and, lately, the United Nations. In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency announced an official combined effort to target food waste.

Food waste is just what it sounds like — we’re wasting both fresh foods and processed foods, throwing away up to 40 percent of uneaten food each year. That statistic is staggering when you put it next to the percentage of American children who go to bed hungry each night: 21 percent. Nearly a quarter of our children don’t know where their next meal will come from, while $165 billion worth of meals are thrown away.

There are lots of reasons this happens. Firstly, we like to buy pretty food. We’re convinced that carrots have to be perfectly shaped, even though that has no impact on their taste or nutritional value. If they’re too fat or crooked or not orange enough, they’re rejected by photographic sensors at the farm. They don’t even make it to supermarket shelves. More than 25 percent of U.S. carrot harvests are either tossed or added to animal feed, because they’re not really, really, ridiculously good looking.

Some farms will leave this produce on the ground to rot not only because it’s misshapen, but because it’s not at peak ripeness for shipping. This “second-class” classification of otherwise perfectly edible fruits and veggies reduces an item’s value by two-thirds, making it more cost-effective to toss out than to try and re-package for other purposes.

The “ugly food” movement is an effort to bring a sort of “dented and dinged” section for produce to supermarkets, similar to what’s happening now in Europe. It’s also about letting go of our predilection towards only buying the biggest and brightest offered, despite this having no impact on the quality of the food. Honestly, why do we care if a peach isn’t completely round if we’re just slicing it up for a cobbler?

A lot of the time, we buy produce we’re not going to have time to eat, because it’s available and affordable. Up to 20 percent of the food we buy, we throw away, which is a significant part of your monthly budget going in to the garbage.

"Is that an upside down comma or a tomato? I'm not eating it!"

"Is that an upside down comma or a tomato? I'm not eating it!"

It’s also important to mention that tossing that organic material in a landfill — where it doesn’t biodegrade at the same rate as the plastic grocery bags it came in — results in higher methane emissions. This is why the EPA has gotten involved with the food waste problem. They’ve launched the Food Recovery Challenge, a program to work with farmers and grocers to get the unpretty and unsold produce donated to food pantries, instead of rotting away and adding to greenhouse gasses.