Wasted Produce: Odd Looks Keep Fresh Food from Reaching the Market

While the novel coronavirus has disrupted the food supply chain in an unprecedented way, leaving fields full of fresh produce to rot, the problem of food waste itself is anything but new. Before the arrival of COVID-19, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that about 1.3 billion tons of food went uneaten each year.

It was during a visit to a local farm that two University of Minnesota researchers saw one opportunity to cut down some of this waste.

“We noticed that there was a huge pile of perfectly fine produce,” said SunMin May Hwang, graduate student in the College of Design’s Human Factors and Ergonomics program. “We asked why they were dumped in this pile, and the farmers said they don’t take it to the market because they know that it wouldn’t be sold.”

This produce, despite being nutritious and safe to eat, lacked the aesthetic appeal to be sold. The fruits and vegetables we see have a uniform appearance because their counterparts with odd shapes, blemishes, or coloring are filtered out before they even reach the market. Now, Hwang and Barry Kudrowitz, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel and director of the Product Design Program, are studying consumers’ perceptions of produce to discover how more of the “ugly” produce can be put to good use.

“We’re trying to understand exactly what about the appearance of produce would make someone consider it acceptable versus unacceptable,” Kudrowitz said.

The researchers are focusing on Hmong-American farms in Minnesota, working in collaboration with the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA). Many Hmong who resettled from Laos and Thailand to Minnesota during the 1970s became a part of the local agricultural industry and have since played a large role in growing the food economy and farmers markets in the Twin Cities area.

Hmong-American farmers often do not have access to the same opportunities, however, as farmers who have been established in the region for longer. While larger farm operations can, for example, sell unaesthetic produce to juice makers, many Hmong farmers don’t have that option for their produce.

“I think that’s why it’s important for farmers to be able to sell those to grocery stores and to consumers in farmers markets,” Hwang said. “They’re just not bringing them to the markets, and we’re not used to seeing those. We’re just used to perfect-looking ones.”

Beauty in the Eye of the Consumer

The researchers are currently in the first stage of the project, which involves studying which factors related to each fruit and vegetable’s appearance will most affect consumers’ purchase decisions. While they will continue to collect data over the next year, some early results suggests aesthetic preference could be tied to functional preference. Consumers might not, for example, buy a potato with an unusual shape if that makes it harder to peel.

Once Kudrowitz and Hwang figure out which factors affect perceptions, they plan to apply that knowledge to determining what consumers would be willing to pay for produce with lumps, blemishes, or other unaesthetic qualities. They will put these ideas to the test by taking such produce items to market and see if consumers actually buy them.

“Ideally, there might be a price point for everything,” Kudrowitz said. “How much is somebody willing to pay for these ugly ones if you sold them, as opposed to letting them compost in the field? Maybe there is a market.”

Beyond price, the way we label food could also play a role in getting consumers to accept produce that looks different from their expectations, Kudrowitz said. While it may not sound appealing on paper to buy a knobby, dark purple tomato, such tomatoes actually fetch a higher price at the store than their more generic counterparts. The difference, he explained, could be in the name—“heirloom tomatoes.”

While many projects in the College of Design result in beautiful-looking objects or outcomes, Hwang said it’s important to note these are not the main focus of the projects, but a complementary outcome to the bigger solutions.

“The design process should be a process for problem-solving, unique and customized to each case,” she said, adding that design standards from one field may not be appropriate for another. “There are instances where ‘one-size-fits-all,’ universal design can be the solution, but in the food industry, it is clear that the perception about ‘beauty’ needs to be reformulated. This research project allows us to do that.”