Here is the full transcript of Mike Meinhardt’s TEDx Talk: Let’s Talk About Ugly Vegetables And Fruits @ TEDxUniversityofNevada conference.
Listen to the MP3 audio: Let’s Talk About Ugly Vegetables And Fruits by Mike Meinhardt @ TEDxUniversityofNevada
Every year, 20 billion pounds of produce is wasted in North America. These veggies would cost 50 billion if sold in grocery stores. That’s more than the annual governmental spending of the world’s 75 smallest countries combined.
And if all cucumbers were stacked end-to-end, they would reach from this theater to the moon and back, eight times. That’s every year.
Unfortunately, much of this waste comes at the direct expense of local farmers. Perfectly good fruits and vegetables that are fresh, delicious, and nutritious, just a little too ugly for grocery store shelves: a two-legged carrot, a cucumber that leans to the left, a pepper that’s misshapen, or an eggplant that looks like grandpa’s face.
Let me ask you a question. When was the last time you saw anything other than perfect-looking produce at your local grocery store? Farmers are great at what they do.
But just like veggies in your backyard garden, Mother Nature does have a say in how produce grows. And just like any of us, they’re not always perfect.
In a recent, independent blind taste test, 10 out of 10 people could not taste the difference between a supermodel carrot and one with three legs.
Depending on how you farm and what you grow, as much as 30% of your harvest can be lost simply due to size, shape, or color. These perfectly good fruits and vegetables may be hauled to the local landfill or simply tilled back into the soil. This becomes an added expense to farmers that delivers no benefit to their bottom line.
Imagine how agriculture would change if farmers could sell their whole crop every year instead of 70% of the best-looking product. Would the price of produce go down? Would more people be willing to get into farming if they had the opportunity to make a comfortable living for their endless hard work? If families, regardless of income, had affordable access to fresh produce, would they eat more, resulting in stronger, healthier lifestyles? Just imagine the impact this could have.
Sometimes, our biggest problems have the simplest solutions and come from the most unlikely voices. I have identical triplet boys, now 16 years old, with brand new drivers licenses. Like many teenagers, they’re consumed with sports, friends, and social media. I think there’s a couple of TED talks about raising triplets, but we’ll save those for another time.
In the spring of 2014, they were in the seventh grade and being influenced by a talented teacher, Mr Davidson, who was teaching his class the importance of reducing your environmental footprint. All of a sudden at home, we had to time our showers, buy a composter, and answer to the entire family if a plastic bottle ended up in the garbage cans.
Around that time, I took the family to our local greenhouses to see how food was grown. Along the tour, we came across several dumpsters full of cucumbers and tomatoes. The boys stopped and asked me why they were being thrown out.
I told them they were ugly veggies and pointed out how the cucumbers looked like boomerangs, Viking clubs, or were simply too short.
One of the boys reached into the dumpster, grabbed a cucumber, took a bite, and quickly declared there was nothing wrong with it. I acknowledged that he was right, but they were funny-looking, so grocery stores wouldn’t buy them. I didn’t give it a second thought. This is the way the produce industry has been for decades.
We moved along with the tour, but the boys continued to think about it. Later that day, on the drive home, these wasted veggies were all they wanted to talk about: “Why are you throwing them away?” “Wouldn’t somebody want to eat them?” “Dad, it’s just wrong. You have to do something about it.”
That was the start of an adventure titled “Misfits: rise of the rejects.”
A few months later, the misfits debuted. We started by offering crooked cucumbers and tomatoes that were a little too green or a little too small, with a vision of someday offering any produce that’s perfectly fresh and delicious, but visually, a bit of a misfit. The best part is everyone wins.
Farmers win when they have the opportunity to sell their entire crop. Grocers win by offering delicious fruits and vegetables at a discounted cost. And families win by supporting a program that’s environmentally friendly while eating healthy and saving some money on their grocery bills.
Our test market was in western Canada. The results were amazing: misfits sold out every week. And shoppers rushed to find stores that carried these superheroes. Our underdogs quickly became front-page news.
Media across the country and around the world celebrated the program and stores that supported it. The U.S. quickly took notice, and stores coast-to-coast started offering these imperfect veggies. Something was happening.
Were people starting to realize that imperfect produce could simply taste perfect? Excitement and positive results continued for the next couple of years. Today, the misfits are the longest-running, most successful, ugly produce program on the planet.
We offer 26 different kinds of veggies and have saved American families close to 10 million dollars. All while rescuing over 3 million pounds of produce from landfills across the country.
With all this great success, there’s such an opportunity in front of us. Today, in North America, about a thousand stores offer ugly produce programs. This means there’s 80,000 more that can still learn how great imperfect produce can taste.
If all 80,000 stores offered such programs, we would rescue enough food, every year, to feed every man, woman, and child in the great State of Nevada three meals a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
So, how do we get there? I call on grocery stores across the country and around the world to embrace ugly produce. Build a program with your current supplier, or ask about the misfits. It’s a change in traditional thinking: never compromise on taste or freshness, but remember, perfect produce comes in all shapes and sizes.
As consumers, we need to speak up and take action. Tell your local grocery stores you want them to carry ugly produce. To find stores that do, search “misfits produce” online, or follow our superheroes on social media. Once you find a store, try some. Find out first-hand how great produce can taste, even if it’s a little bit imperfect.
After all, we’re all misfits. And our imperfections are what make us interesting.