Now, Wal-Mart has officially joined the bandwagon. Starting this week, America's largest grocer says it will start piloting sales of weather-dented apples at a discount in 300 of its stores in Florida. If this were one of those Hollywood movies where the mousy girl gets a dramatic makeover, this would probably be the scene where she gets asked to the prom (minus the sexist subtext).
"We're excited to announce that after months of discussion, a brand of apples from Washington state, called "I'm Perfect," will make its debut in Walmart stores this week," Shawn Baldwin, senior vice president for global food sourcing, produce and floral for Wal-Mart U.S., writes in a company blog post. He adds, "We're proud to be the first retailer to bring these apples to you." The apples will be sold in 2- and 5-pound bags, he says.
Ugly fruits and vegetables are a fact of life on the farm. Sometimes the dents and scars are so minor that you wouldn't think twice about buying them. They're perfectly edible, delicious and just as nutritious as their unmarred brethren — or perhaps even more so. But their cosmetic challenges (think hail-pocked apples or curvy leeks) have traditionally kept them out of retail stores.
Imperfect produce often ends up in landfills instead, contributing to food waste, which, in turn, is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Across the U.S., there's no good documentation of how much produce gets tossed because of cosmetic imperfections, and losses vary from crop to crop, says JoAnne Berkenkamp, a senior advocate for food and agriculture at the Natural Resources Defense Council. But "we've typically found that growers reported [cosmetic-related] losses ranging up to 20 percent of production in a given year, but it could be higher in years of bad weather."
For apples, blemish-related losses can reach as high as 30 percent, according to data from Columbia Marketing International that Wal-Mart cites.
But efforts to help consumers and U.S. retailers see the inner beauty of gnarly produce have stepped up of late. In March, as we've reported, Giant Eagle announced a small pilot program to sell less-than-perfect produce at a discount in its Pittsburgh-area stores, and Whole Foods announced a similar effort in its Northern California outlets. But, as Berkenkamp notes, "it's hard to get bigger than Wal-Mart."
Wal-Mart has more than 4,000 U.S. stores. So it has the potential to "completely change the market," says Jordan Figueiredo, founder of the @UglyFruitAndVeg Campaign, which uses humor to raise awareness of food waste.
In fact, Wal-Mart has been testing sales of uglies since late April, when it started marketing "Spuglies" — a brand of weather-damaged potatoes — in its Texas stores. "They're still on shelves" in some 400 stores in the state, says Wal-Mart spokesman John Forrest Ales. He says Wal-Mart doesn't make public how many pounds of spuds have been sold under the Spuglies program, but "we're hearing good things about it from our customers."
The "I'm Perfect" apples and "Spuglies" potato programs are a "good step," says Figueiredo. But he wants the grocery behemoth to expand the program with more produce available year-round and in more states — and perhaps, a cheeky marketing campaign that glorifies the crazy and curious shapes that crops can take.
Figueiredo is one of the organizers of a Change.org petition with more than 143,000 signatures urging Wal-Mart to sell ugly produce, and he visited Bentonville, Ark., on Wednesday to deliver it in person to the company's headquarters. (Whole Foods' decision to test sales of ugly produce followed a similar petition that Figueiredo organized.)
Figueiredo notes that earlier this year, Wal-Mart's UK grocery chain, Asda, began selling "wonky veg" boxes — each containing 11 pounds of various misshapen fruits and vegetables — in hundreds of stores. The boxes, which sell for the equivalent of $4.60, have proved popular. He'd like to see Wal-Mart launch a similar program across the U.S.
That's not currently in the cards, says Wal-Mart's John Forrest Ales, but the company is looking at various ways to expand its offerings of ugly produce.
"All of our conversations are about, how do we maximize the harvest?" he says. The challenge though, he says, is creating an efficient infrastructure and network that can scoop up enough misfit produce from farmers to meet demand and get it to the stores before it goes bad.