Opinion

That 'ugly' grocery store vegetable or fruit deserves love too

Ahhh, the French: always on the cutting edge. The folks who invented the Etch-a-Sketch, the pencil sharpener and berets worn saucily over one eye have always been groundbreakers, but this time they’ve topped themselves.

Last spring, Loblaws released 'Naturally Imperfect' discount produce line in stores across Canada

In March, Loblaws announced it's expanding its 'ugly' produce program across Canada, including to all of Winnipeg's Real Canadian Superstore and No Frills locations. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Ahhh, the French: always on the cutting edge. The folks who invented the Etch-a-Sketch, the pencil sharpener and berets worn saucily over one eye have always been groundbreakers, but this time they've topped themselves.

Make misshapen fruit and vegetables desirable? If anyone can do it, it would have to be les Francais. 

A few years back, a French grocery store chain called Intermarché made the decision to promote "ugly" fruits and vegetables, in an effort to combat food waste and improve their profits. By "ugly," I don't mean acorn squash or rutabagas. No, I'm talking carrots resembling tripods; lumpy yet edible apples and less-than-pristine pears. 

Intermarché commissioned a well-known food photographer to take pictures of produce normally considered too misshapen to be sold. A campaign was launched to convince consumers that despite their less than pleasing appearance, these fruits and veg were perfectly fine for consumption. As an inducement, prices on these "ugly" foods were reduced by 30 per cent. 

The French, being savvy gourmands and shoppers, didn't shy away from taking home produce that would normally be thrown out for aesthetic reasons. In fact, there was an increase of 60 per cent in traffic to the produce department, plus an overall increase of 24 per cent in store visits. 

New to Canada

Until recently, the idea of buying so-called ugly fruit and vegetables was relatively foreign to Canadians.

Consumers have been brainwashed into thinking their produce should be showroom perfect, free of any sort of blemishes and a particular shape and size. Where did the idea come from that only perfectly formed fruit and vegetables are worth consuming?

Maybe it was during the Second World War, when agriculture became more industrialized, which resulted in the look of many fruits and vegetables becoming much more homogenous. It was at that time that advances in genetic manipulation ensured that producers could have a product that was fundamentally more perfect-looking and (presumably) more beneficial to your health. 

Next time you're shopping, do yourself and the planet a favour and give that oddball onion or asymmetrical apple a second look.- Jo Holness

It reminds me of high school, when the cute girls and boys were assumed to be brighter and more talented. Good looks (symmetry of facial features) tend to smooth the way for people, and it seems the same is true for produce. The mindset seems to be: "If it's pretty, it's better." That there is no scientific proof to back up this way of thinking doesn't seem to come into it for most people. And so the lumpy squash sits on the shelf, like a wallflower at a junior high school dance.

It's gotten to the point that when I go grocery shopping, I feel like the produce is better made-up than I am. Apples and cucumbers are waxed to perfection. Plums shine lusciously back at me, seeming to mock my bare face and sweatpants. I look at the tomatoes, glistening in their bin, and feel like I should put on some lipstick and fix my hair.

Leap onto 'ugly' bandwagon

Canada's leap onto the "ugly" French bandwagon was driven mainly by significant increases in produce prices, which in turn were caused by the sinking Canadian dollar and factors such as California's ongoing drought. According to Statistics Canada, between January 2015 and 2016, the largest increases in food prices were found in the produce aisle, with fresh fruit and vegetables surging 12.9 and 18.2 per cent, respectively.  

It's a fact of life that after shelter and transportation, grocery bills eat up the largest portion of a family's monthly budget. So it's no surprise that any opportunity to save money on produce is as welcome as sunscreen on a nude beach.  

Here in Canada, grocery chain Loblaw's is leading the charge to promote "ugly" fruit and vegetables, using the guidelines introduced by the French. Stereotypically cost-conscious Manitobans now have the option to purchase fresh produce on the cheap. Unsurprisingly, if you give bargain-starved shoppers a price cut, they learn to love less than lovely fruit and veg in no time.

It's not only about saving money. Ugly fruit and vegetables sold to the public don't end up in landfills. This concept fits neatly into the popular mindset of recycling and reusing rather than simply throwing away. 

The numbers surrounding food waste are mindboggling. A 2014 report by consulting firm Value Chain Management placed the value of food wasted in Canada alone at over $31 billion annually. Factor in energy, water and other resource costs and that number would triple. If that doesn't give you indigestion, I don't know what will.  

So next time you're shopping, do yourself and the planet a favour and give that oddball onion or asymmetrical apple a second look. After all, looks aren't everything.

Jo Holness is a Winnipeg writer.