Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the adage goes, and Sarah Philips is living proof. Outraged to learn that every year nearly six billion pounds of perfectly nutritious food is tossed in the American waste stream because it’s deemed “ugly” or aesthetically deformed (as opposed to spoiled, moldy, or inedible by the USDA, Philips founded Ugly Produce is Beautiful ℠ Educational Campaign. Already a well-established presence in the food world, Philips’ goal is to encourage the consumer to buy and consume those crooked, long-necked, wonky fruits and vegetables with more inclusive eyes. Not only will including some ugly produce in your diet lessen the load on our landfills (and, hence, the outgassing of methane), but will help the planet, and feed more people.
Growing up, your mother was a passionate gardener. Can you discuss how this shaped your perspective on food?
I have been obsessed with food my whole life, and have been in the food business for 30 years professionally – half of my life. My mother always had an organic garden, even in the 1950s. She believed that chemicals, colorings and preservatives were poison. My family had lots of sensitivities – not to food, but to preservatives and food colors – and she figured out that we were allergic to these artificial additives, giving u s headaches, making us hyper, itchy, and so on. To this day, I cannot eat packaged and industrialized food. It shaped my view on a lifelong eating pattern of seeking out farm fresh and organic foods, and in turn, I have taught my own children the same.
You have a rich and varied background in the food world. What/who are some of your most potent influences?
The biggest influence has been my mother, of course. I have also been shaped by many mentors, particularly Julia Child. She cooked good and fresh food. She didn’t fuss too much about plating and decorating; she just cooked good food.
What inspired you to start Ugly Produce Is Beautiful?
I have always shopped for organic produce at farmer’s markets and specialty food markets, and disliked traditional grocery stores because the produce there was “ugly” to me there—due to its sameness and lack of flavor. Then I started reading about the food waste of ugly produce, and it made me ashamed. I wanted to do something meaningful about it.
On your website, you link imperfect produce with starvation, pollution, pesticides and malnutrition. Can you expand upon your thinking?
Imperfect or ugly produce is linked to all of those things. According to the National Resources Defense Council, “Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also that the 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. Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.”
Ugly produce is part of that food waste.
We have set high beauty standards for how produce ‘should’ look and as a result, developed a damaging food waste system.
We uphold that produce must be uniform in color, shape, and size to be fit for sale or “beautiful,” rather than be deformed, imperfect, crooked, long-necked or in other words, the moniker that the media uses: “ugly produce.” It is produce we have deemed unfit for consumption, even though it is nutritionally fit to feed our nation. Rather a great proportion of this produce is thrown out, plowed under or left to rot in the fields where it was grown. Other ugly produce is donated to food banks and “culled” from the fields and sold at a reduced price, or fed to livestock, but more has to happen to make a bigger impact.
When ugly produce is dumped into landfills, it decomposes and produces methane gas. Methane gas has twenty one times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, “(methane gas) is initially far more devastating to the climate because of how effectively it absorbs heat. In the first two decades after its release, methane is eighty four times more potent than carbon dioxide.”
You encourage people to use produce past its “prime date.” What are some recipes that work well for overripe fruits and vegetables?
Baking recipes work especially well. So does cooking them to make purees. Roasting fruit and vegetables in the oven is a particularly great way to prepare this type of food.
Why do you think the Department of Agriculture and the USDA have created such narrow standards for acceptable produce? And why has the public gone along with it?
As 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 beginning of the “Baby Boom” years, a rapid growth of America’s population. As Americans moved farther from their homegrown food source and daily shopping rituals, refrigerators and better food storage were invented. Suburban supermarkets were constructed, estimated at three a day, and become the central markets for growing families. Food factories were built, and food handling machinery was introduced to handle the increased need for food and its storage. The new highways allowed for the better distribution of this food; and the old farming system was deemed to be inefficient to handle the demand of the growing population. I believe that food made in factories had to become more uniform in size and shape to be sorted, frozen, and packed, because of industrial machinery. Then these companies sold the idea of this new food to the American public through advertising.
At the same time, new American messages of keeping a clean and spotless house and having a perfect family and marriage were being trotted out by Madison Avenue. Dirt was bad, a clean house was the way to go; germs were bad, let’s spray them away with new cleaning supplies. We should all live in cookie-cutter homes and have cookie-cutter kids with everyone smiling. Even our produce and food should be cookie cutter and look the same and be perfect—just like TV dinners were—and have evenly sized canned or frozen produce that comes in one color.
Plus, we became a disposable society: we could throw our unwanted waste and food in the garbage, discard the TV dinner pans, cans that the food came in, the grocery bags we were given at the new supermarkets, and endless colorful bags and packaging. And it was picked up by garbage trucks, disposed of sight unseen, keeping our homes neat and tidy. Even dirt that was vacuumed in the home could be disposed of in the garbage in a vacuum bag, rather than throwing it out the door into the yard where it belonged.
I believe that the ugly produce problem began at this time along with many other cultural messages. I think the problem grew because everyone bought into the American Dream. We felt that we were being progressive and the convenience of it all felt good.
What sort of steps is your campaign taking to change this phenomena?
We want the first phase of the campaign to be an educational and event phase. We plan on launching branded Ugly Produce products. The second phase is for us to launch food products that actually utilize ugly produce to bring about more awareness.
What sort of success have you had so far?
What can the consumer do to elicit change in addition to purchasing ugly produce?
Use past-its-prime produce in your own cooking and baking. Part of this issue is caused by lack of education, lack of awareness, undervaluing of foods, confusion over label dates, spoilage, impulse and bulk purchases, poor planning, and over-preparation. Follow us on @UglyProduceisBeautiful on Instagram where we post daily photos and information, and link to our www.UglyProduceisBeautiful.com site.
You state that your goal is to offer recipes on how to use ugly produce, but why would “ugly” and “beautiful” produce require different recipes?
The recipes are the same, but they will require special information, as needed, such as more trimming, for example. I am just making people aware that they can use imperfect produce in those recipes. Our ugly produce also brings about awareness of how you can use over-ripened produce in your recipes, rather than throwing it away.
What are you hopes for the future of produce in America?
That all produce is deemed beautiful! That we stop the dangerous path to creating GMO produce.