Judith Klinger
December 12, 2014

Sometimes food waste solutions, like Fruta Feia, seem so simple. Sometimes the reasons for the food waste are so wacky, you can't believe it. The European fruit and vegetable standards are regulations that ensure that all commercial produce meets specific size, color and weight requirements. So, if Mother Nature grows a short, fat tomato, it gets tossed in the rubbish heap.

Sound silly or sinful? Sound outrageous? It is just this sense of outrage that prompted Isabel Soares to start “Fruta Feia” (Ugly Fruit) in Lisbon, Portugal.  Soares came to the MAD chef symposium in Copenhagen to tell us her story about the food cooperative she started to combat food waste.

Fruta Feia, Ugly Fruit, food waste solutions

Why would good food get wasted?

 While European rules on food conformity are partly to blame, so are supermarkets that insist on standardized sizes and shapes. Shippers have their say as they insist on uniformity to make it easier to pack and ship the fresh produce. In turn, the consumer has been trained to expect to see ‘perfect’ fruits and vegetables, so anything sub-standard is rejected.

The goal of Ugly Fruit is to rescue locally grown non-standardized fruits and vegetables and distribute them to it’s members, much like how a food cooperative or CSA operates. Ugly Fruit is also dedicated to broadening the consumer’s mind about what is acceptable and normal. Soares’s project got its initial startup money as one of three winners of the  Ideias de Origem Portuguesa entrepreneurship prize. This recognition was crucial in raising the additional funds through PPL, a crowd sourcing website.

It wasn't easy getting started. Fire. Suspicion. And big heavy crates.

While the idea of rescuing perfectly good food sounds uplifting and romantic, the reality is a lot of hard work and heavy lifting. Early in Ugly Fruit’s history, they had a supremely bad morning when their produce pick-up van caught fire and literally burned to ashes. A friend rescued them on the side of the road with another vehicle and they were able to pick up their daily round of food from the growers, but they were very behind schedule. Normally it would take 3 hours to break down the food and set up the individual crates for their clients. News of the van’s demise spread throughout the Ugly Fruit community and by the time they returned to their warehouse, there was a crew of willing volunteers to help break down the food in 45 minutes. As Soares told the story, it was at this moment, with everyone pitching in, that she knew this project would succeed.

Fruta Peppers, Ugly Fruit, Fruta Feia, food waste solutions
Yellow Peppers

 The estimates vary on exactly how much food is wasted, but the general consensus is about 50% of food is wasted at some point in the growth-to-table-to-trash cycle.

An additional obstacle the group faced was opposition, or call it suspicion on the part of the growers. As Soares explains, the farmers thought she might have been an under cover agent for the sanitary department. But, if you’re throwing away 25% of your crop because it doesn’t conform, eventually you are going to welcome the arrival of the Ugly Fruit van. It’s not just the waste at the consumer level, but think about the water and soil resources that are also being wasted.

21 tons of ugly fruit rescued from the food waste rubbish pile.

From startup in November 2013, to just a few months later in late spring of 2014, Ugly Fruit had sold 21 tons of fruit and now has a waiting list of over 1,000 people. That’s a lot of food in a short amount of time. It looks like people have no problem with mis-shapen lemons after all.  Soares has plans to expand to other cities outside of Lisbon, and if goes all as planned, maybe her idea will spread to other countries as well. 

Isabel Soares, thank you for sharing your story at #MAD4.

Ugly Fruit, Fruta Feia, food waste solutions
Cucumbers come in all sizes.

Further reading:

Jamie Oliver loves wonky vegetables

The Latest French Fashion Eating Ugly Fruits and Veggies from Grist.org

OzHarvest, Food Rescue in Australia

Eating Ugly Vegetables from Munchies.

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