In February 2016, Asda released the UK’s first supermarket ‘wonky vegetable’ box. The 5kg box of imperfect in-season vegetables and salad ingredients is 30% cheaper than standard lines, and contains enough unwanted vegetables to feed a family for a week. Following a positive response on social media, Asda quickly rolled the boxes out to 550 stores across the UK. The success of this initiative is further evidence that consumers are happy to buy ‘ugly’ produce, and comes amid growing calls for retailers to relax specifications and offer more of it.

Increasing consumer demand for imperfect, misshapen, wonky, ugly, warped, blemished, malformed and crooked fruit and vegetables is driven by three main considerations. Firstly, increased transparency and growing public awareness of the impact of food waste on supply chains and household budgets is generating momentum around the issue. 10 million tonnes of food and drink is wasted in the UK each year (most of it by households), representing an overall cost to the UK of £17bn.

Aside from households, large amounts of waste occur at other points in the supply chain. Farmers are forced to throw away tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables each year because they don’t meet the exacting size, shape and colour requirements of UK supermarkets. Figures like these carry more weight in the present context of negligible wage growth and rising food inflation. A recent report by the Regency Purchasing Group suggests that hospitality businesses could save up to 12% on costs by using more ‘wonky veg’.

Secondly, consumption is switching to an experience-based model, with ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables tapping into the counter-culture sentiment of those who seek simplicity and authentic produce in contrast to the bland uniformity and homogeneity consumers have become accustomed to. Imperfect fruit and vegetables are proof of authenticity and slot easily into a broader consumer movement which prioritizes tangible consumption ‘moments’. The fight against food waste involves reversing the false aesthetic which drives waste at the production and processing phases and replacing it with an inclusive one which presents food at face value and encourages consumers to engage with it.

Thirdly, food poverty is a pressing issue. With 4.7 million people in the UK currently living in food poverty, ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables have become a key weapon in the arsenal of charities and food banks. In this sense, the issue of food poverty and the ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetable trend is connected to the growing consumer desire for ethically produced, locally sourced produce.

The debate surrounding wonky fruit and vegetables taps into growing concerns about authenticity, simplicity, localism, responsibility and fairness, and calls on both sides will intensify in the coming months as consumers become more empowered and retailers take a more active interest in the communities they serve.

Related link

ForeSights: Wonky Fruit and Vegetables – Embracing ‘ugliness’ and imperfection in the fight against food waste