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Food & Drink

Imperfect produce still perfectly edible

| Friday, June 24, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
Produce with Personality
Giant Eagle
Produce with Personality
Ugly CSA's public service announcement
Pawel Prochnicki
Ugly CSA's public service announcement
Imperfect oranges are perfect for juicing.
Giant Eagle
Imperfect oranges are perfect for juicing.

When you go to the grocery store, you probably instinctively try to grab the best-looking produce you can find, figuring the biggest, shiniest, roundest is the best.

But what it looks like has nothing to do with how it tastes. The misshapen “ugly” fruit and vegetables that fall to the bottom, or remain un-bought, taste pretty much the same as the good-looking ones.

A few months ago, some Giant Eagle locations started selling discounted “Produce With Personality” — such a nice way to say it.

412 Food Rescue, a local nonprofit that tries to find ways to divert food from landfills to those who need it, is a bit more blunt about it.

Its “Ugly CSA” comes from a partnership with Penn's Corner Farm Alliance — a cooperative of 30 farmers from across the region. The motto of the effort is “Delicious is not skin-deep.”

A CSA — Community Supported Agriculture — is a way to get food from farms directly to consumers. Customers buy a subscription, then receive regular deliveries of boxes of produce.

The Ugly CSA pilot program will cost about $15 a week, about 40 percent less than the average of the three biggest farm CSAs in Pittsburgh, including Penn's Corner. It will run for eight weeks in August and September.

That odd shape, color or visual defect does not mean produce is otherwise defective. Sometimes a little weirdness is a good thing.

“Tomatoes, for example,” says Leah Lizarondo, co-founder and CEO of 412 Food Rescue. “We're used to nice, round tomatoes. Heirloom varieties, before they got monocultured into this perfect round tomato, are all weirdly shaped. Not standard at all.”

Little scratches on the surface aren't a good reason to toss a whole piece of fruit or vegetable, either.

“We're also talking about vegetables that are scarred,” Lizarondo says. “Eggplants that might have a little scar in the middle. Maybe little dents here and there.”

Glut vegetables are part of the inventory, too.

“We're starting the CSA in August, when a lot of produce goes unsold,” Lizarondo says. “Vegetables that a farmer has too much of — instead of throwing it away, they'll throw it into the CSA box.”

It's hard to say how much cosmetically imperfect food goes uneaten. A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, citing another report from Feeding America, says more than 6 million pounds of fresh produce go unsold or unharvested each year. That means that as much as 20 percent of perfectly edible produce is rejected for its appearance.

“I spoke with a farmer today who told me that he estimates that 15 percent of what he grows goes unsold, but that's due to other factors in addition to being cosmetically imperfect,” says Amy Clemente, of Penn's Corner Farm Alliance. “That also takes into account weather and pest damage.

“Sometimes our farmers will offer their imperfect crops as ‘seconds' produce to our restaurant or retail customers, which they sell at a reduced cost. That helps to move some of those products, but we don't sell a huge amount of seconds. Products that are not sellable are occasionally donated to food banks or food pantries, but more often end up in compost piles.”

Giant Eagle is fairly happy with its pilot program and already plans for its expansion.

“Since launching a well-received five-store ‘Produce With Personality' pilot in March, we have expanded the initiative to include six additional Pittsburgh-area locations and nine locations in Ohio,” says Dick Roberts, Giant Eagle spokesman. “With this significant program growth, we have been able to provide a variety of customers throughout our footprint the opportunity to help the environment while enjoying a unique chance to save in our supermarkets.”

The Ugly CSA is also hoping enough people will bite, so to speak, to make it worth continuing.

“This year's Ugly CSA is a pilot, so while it's not going to move a huge amount of our farmers' produce, we will be able to sell some items that would normally go to waste, which will be helpful,” Clemente says.

“Hopefully, by educating consumers about ugly food, we'll create a market for it which will increase support for our farmers in the years to come.”

Michael Machosky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7901 or mmachosky@tribweb.com.

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