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Ugly fruit and vegetables on the march

Fruit comes in every shape and size, just like people do. But while we celebrate differences in people, we've rejected differences in our produce. Until now.

It’s the pride movement you probably haven’t heard of yet: a push for the acceptance and even the love of ugly fruit and vegetables. 

Fruit and vegetables come in every shape and size, of course, just like people do. But while we celebrate differences in people, we reject differences in our produce. We don’t like the half-launched lemon, the puny pear, or the bent banana. 

We may sense that Mother Nature is a gnarly lady, but we’ve never actually seen much of what she creates. It’s been hidden from us by federal standards and the aesthetic guidelines of major food sellers. A culture of “food porn” doesn’t help. We all seem to be eating with our eyes, not our mouths. 

But this is starting to change. 

This week Raley’s Supermarket in California became the first major American chain to sell gloriously grotesque produce. It’s a just a ten store pilot program in the Sacramento area, but it’s part of a much broader, deeper change that’s already taken off overseas.

That the ugly fruit and vegetable movement is spreading in America is thanks in large part to Imperfect produce. The Oakland-based company is responsible for the historic deal with Raley’s and it will start a home delivery service in parts of northern California starting early next month. 

RELATED: Whole Foods' new produce rating system burdens organic farmers

“You’ve got to think about what you’re not seeing in the grocery store, and that’s what we’re doing with Imperfect,” Ben Simon, the company’s co-founder told msnbc. 

He’s 25, not so ugly himself, and a canny businessperson. But at times he can almost sound like Naomi Wolf, attacking the beauty-obsession that can trap modern women, or Randolph Bourne, agitating for the rights of the disabled. 

His passion is fueled by a recognition of the fact that Americans waste too much—food especially, and fruits and vegetables most of all. More than half the fruits and vegetables grown in this country never get eaten, according to an influential 2012 study by the National Resources Defense Council. Many are purchased but later tossed. 

But another large portion – about 20% – never even end up in stores. And for a very superficial reason: they look bad. They don’t have bugs or disease or any other health-related problem. They are simply ugly by the obsessive standards of modern America.

Simon realized that this is a multi-faceted disaster for the environment. 

It’s a major loss of water, at least 25 gallons for every pound of uneaten fresh food. It’s a major contributor to landfills, where rotting food leeches methane—a greenhouse gas. Food waste contributes so much to global emissions that if it were a country it would rank third, behind only China and the U.S.

Our obsession with pretty fruit and perfect vegetables is also a mockery of the millions of people who would like any kind of fruit and veggies but can’t afford them. Simon’s company addresses this problem too. Farmers used to leave ugly fruits and vegetables in the field to rot, knowing they would never sell. Those that partner with Imperfect, however, get about 70 percent of the normal market value. Simon then passes the difference to customers.  

For all these reasons, ugly fruit pride has taken off. This past spring Dana Cowin, editor of Food & Wine, launched a #loveuglyfood campaign during a Tedx presentation in Manhattan. “If we could take what we once thought was ugly and see it as beautiful, we could reduce food waste and change the world,” Cowin declared on stage. 

Around the same time, Jordan Figueiredo launched an “End Food Waste” social media campaign with the handle @UglyFruitAndVeg, and the mantra “all produce should be loved and eaten.” It now has than 15,000 followers, and a joyful stream of wacko-looking food. 

All of this major American action is following Europe, however, where ugly fruit and vegetable sales exploded in 2014.

“Now you can eat five ‘inglorious’ fruits and vegetables a day. As good, but 30% cheaper,” begins a commercial aired last summer in France for Intermarche, one of the country’s largest supermarkets. In print and TV ads, the company praised “the grotesque apple, the ridiculous potato, the hideous orange, the failed lemon, the disfigured eggplant, the ugly carrot and the unfortunate clementine.”

They worked: the company sold out of its ugly food in less than two days. It also reported a 24% increase in foot traffic. Now it’s expanding the program to more than 1,400 stores. 

If Ben Simon is right, that same revolution is about to take off in America. It could end the widespread mistreatment of ugly fruit and veggies. But for the moment, Simon is limiting his sales to the most popular kinds of fruit and vegetables, whatever their appearance. 

Sorry kale. Your pride movement is next.