Photo by Erika Fontana

Fruits and vegetables that end up smaller or larger than a standard size, or that have insufficient color or other surface-level imperfections, often do not make the cut for a grocery store produce department.

Some retailers have carved out a space for these cosmetically flawed items anyway, and shoppers have responded favorably, motivated by the momentum around reducing food waste.

Midwest retailer Hy-Vee started working with Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Robinson Fresh about a year and a half ago on its Misfits program, and the reaction was even better than what the retailer expected.

Mike Orf, group vice president of produce purchasing for Hy-Vee, said sourcing is the major challenge for retailers wanting to offer “ugly” produce. The company had been exploring the idea for a while before it found a solution in the Misfits brand offering from Robinson Fresh.

General manager Craig Arneson provided some insight on how Robinson Fresh gets around the obstacles that often deter retailers from creating second-grade produce programs.

“We flex or move based on what is available for the month,” Arneson said. “This is a food rescue program, which makes planning for what food will need rescuing difficult …

“Pineapples, limes and avocados are almost always imported. Citrus, dry vegetables, grapes and other similar produce items are sourced both domestically and internationally, depending on the season,” Arneson said. “We are always trying to work with local growers whenever possible. Much of this product was left in the field or destroyed in the past, so the Misfits program provides a sustainable outlet for a wider range of production.”

Hy-Vee has purchased nearly 3 million pounds of cosmetically imperfect produce since it started its program.

Arneson said several other retailers around the U.S. also carry Misfits and noted the company is working on expanding the program with more retailers this year and next year.


Rethinking perfect produce

California-based retailer 99 Cents Only Stores, which focuses on delivering value at low prices, has made cosmetically flawed fruits and vegetables a staple of its offering.

The company carries an average of 120 stock-keeping units at one time in its produce department, and at least half are “perfectly imperfect,” said director of produce Caitlin Tierney.

“These items range from cherries and strawberries to jalapenos and sugar snap peas,” Tierney said. “When buying imperfect produce, it’s more about building the relationship with the grower and understanding their capabilities, byproducts, what they aren’t harvesting or packing out and then developing a spec around it to fit both the grower and our needs.

“Whether it be having multiple suppliers, a floating spec on size, or moving into conventional grading when applicable, we ensure that we fulfill a year-round supply,” Tierney said. “If there is a want for this style program, there is a way to get it done.”

Shoppers have been willing to try fruits and vegetable outside traditional specifications because of the value they present.

“It’s 99 cents – what do they have to lose?” Tierney said. “Once they chop up a zucchini that is scarred or a bell pepper that is misshapen, they educate themselves in understanding the value, as it tastes just like a ‘perfect’ vegetable but is a whole lot cheaper. It’s then our job to educate them on the sustainability and the food waste savings this gives our world.”


Growth potential

Companies like Imperfect Produce and Hungry Harvest, which deliver “ugly” produce straight to consumers, have also reported positive results. Both services have been expanding quickly, and the leaders of each of those organizations expect the growth to continue.

Tierney also sees a big future for cosmetically flawed fruits and vegetables.

“With transportation and labor costs increasing, I think you will find that imperfect produce has only just begun,” Tierney said. “The landscape has really changed in the last 10 years on grading, and what a U.S. No. 1 spec means to retailers these days. Who knows – maybe in the next 10 years there will be a ‘imperfect’ spec.”


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