By Tracie McMillan
“The Plate,” National Geographic • July 21, 2016
Tasty, if ugly potatoes? Funky-skinned but sweet, firm apples? In a series of low-key blog posts, Walmart—responsible for one-third of the U.S. grocery market—recently announced two new brands of produce with an unusual selling point: The produce would have, under normal circumstances, just be thrown away.
While Walmart isn’t the only grocer that’s recently embraced visually challenged fruits and vegetables, (see How ‘Ugly’ Fruits and Vegetables Can Help Solve World Hunger) its status as the country’s largest grocer could mean very big things for ugly produce.
Still, some activists say the company could do more.
On July 13, Walmart announced “Spuglies,” a line of irregular russet potatoes—the starchy ones commonly used to make mashed potatoes—from Texas farmers. Those were priced at 88 cents for a three-pound bag. Then, on July 19, the company announced the addition of “I’m Perfect” Apples to its shelves in Florida: five-pound bags of mixed varieties from a Washington grower who’d seen perfectly good apples get spotty skin and grow small. Those cost $4.97 for a five-pound bag, says John Forrest Ales, a Walmart spokesperson.
The new brands, says Ales, piggyback on the grocer’s Wonky Box program, launched in its Asda stores in the U.K. last year. That effort saw the grocer borrow from the community-supported agriculture model of food sales and pre-packing boxes with gnarled carrots, rough-skinny pears, bumpy potatoes and other odd produce, while charging 30 percent less for it. Under that model, Asda created a channel for growers’ malformed produce and marketed it on their behalf through a store-branded box.
The initiatives in the U.S., by contrast, require individual farmers to take on the project of branding and selling their occasional wonky bits. That’s a lot of work for a product that, weather permitting, may or may not be in heavy supply each year. And, introduced into specific local markets, those initiatives, says Ales, will be offered at select stores in the U.S.
That’s encouraging, if not exactly the point, say food waste activists, who want to see Walmart make ugly produce a year-round, regular offering. “If Walmart starts selling ugly produce it can make a huge impact across the board, because they change markets when they do things,” says Jordan Figueiredo, an activist with the Ugly Fruits and Vegetables Campaign. That group has helped organize a Change.org petition urging the retailer to embrace ugly fruits and vegetables by mimicking campaigns like the “Inglorious Produce” effort launched by French retailer Intermarche in 2014.
But Figueiredo wants to see Walmart think bigger than just one or two kinds of produce. “Weather blemish is good, but it doesn’t always happen in the same quantities,” he says. “We want something like a wonky veg box.”
On Wednesday, Figueiredo and Pulin Modi from Change.org delivered their petition to Walmart’s Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters with 140,000 signatures. (The petition started last July, says Figueiredo, appealing to both Whole Foods and Walmart. When Whole Foods announced a ugly produce pilot program this spring, Figueiredo started a Walmart-specific petition.) Although he had reached out to the company before, says Figueiredo “we did not hear anything from them until this week… I can’t help but think we’ve had an impact here.”
Ales says Walmart has no specific response to the Ugly Fruit and Vegetables campaign. Indeed, he says, figuring out how to sell imperfect produce at low prices has long been part of the company’s strategy. (As have, it may be noted, plenty of smaller chains and “salvage grocers” around the country.)
“We’ve been selling [grade two] produce for years,” says Ales—as well as using it in the company’s private label items. And when it comes to the store’s house brand, he said, the produce used may be of even lower grades. “The potatoes in our sweet potato pies may not look cosmetically right” he says, “but yeah, we’re giving those to the suppliers.”