Let’s say you have 3 kids. One is very tall, one is short and fat and one is absolutely medium in every way. Would you throw out the tall and short ones and just keep the medium one? Probably not. Besides there are laws about throwing your children into the trash just because they aren’t standard size.
Now, let’s say you have 3 ripe tomatoes, but they don't look alike. In many countries, if you are a vegetable seller, you are required to throw out the odd shaped tomato and only keep the standard tomato. Because after all, when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables, conformity matters more than waste or taste.
Sound silly or sinful? Sound outrageous? It is just this sense of outrage that prompted Isabel Soares to start “Fruta Feia” (Ugly Fruit) in Lisbon, Portugal. Soares came to the MAD chef symposium in Copenhagen to tell us her story.
While European rules on food conformity are partly to blame, so are supermarkets that insist on standardized sizes and shapes. Shippers have their say as they insist on uniformity to make it easier to pack and ship the fresh produce. In turn, the consumer has been trained to expect to see ‘perfect’ fruits and vegetables, so anything sub-standard is rejected.
The goal of Ugly Fruit is to rescue locally grown non-standardized fruits and vegetables and distribute them to it’s members, much like how a food cooperative or CSA operates. Ugly Fruit is also dedicated to broadening the consumer’s mind about what is acceptable and normal. Soares’s project got its initial startup money as one of three winners of the Ideias de Origem Portuguesa entrepreneurship prize. This recognition was crucial in raising the additional funds through PPL, a crowd sourcing website.
While the idea of rescuing perfectly good food sounds uplifting and romantic, the reality is a lot of hard work and heavy lifting. Early in Ugly Fruit’s history, they had a supremely bad morning when their produce pick-up van caught fire and literally burned to ashes. A friend rescued them on the side of the road with another vehicle and they were able to pick up their daily round of food from the growers, but they were very behind schedule. Normally it would take 3 hours to break down the food and set up the individual crates for their clients. News of the van’s demise spread throughout the Ugly Fruit community and by the time they returned to their warehouse, there was a crew of willing volunteers to help break down the food in 45 minutes. As Soares told the story, it was at this moment, with everyone pitching in, that she knew this project would succeed.
An additional obstacle the group faced was opposition, or call it suspicion on the part of the growers. As Soares explains, the farmers thought she might have been an under cover agent for the sanitary department. But, if you’re throwing away 25% of your crop because it doesn’t conform, eventually you are going to welcome the arrival of the Ugly Fruit van. It’s not just the waste at the consumer level, but think about the water and soil resources that are also being wasted.
From startup in November 2013, to just a few months later in late spring of 2014, Ugly Fruit had sold 21 tons of fruit and now has a waiting list of over 1,000 people. That’s a lot of food in a short amount of time. It looks like people have no problem with mis-shapen lemons after all. Soares has plans to expand to other cities outside of Lisbon, and if goes all as planned, maybe her idea will spread to other countries as well.
Isabel Soares, thank you for sharing your story at #MAD4.