For most, a trip to Walmart isn’t a particularly newsworthy event.
But for Jordan Figueiredo, food waste activist and the human behind the @UglyFruitAndVeg social media campaign, a visit to Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas on Wednesday represented the culmination of more than a year’s worth of work. His mission? Deliver a petition, signed by more than 140,000 consumers, asking the nation’s largest supermarket chain to commit to selling “ugly” fruits and vegetables in an effort to curb food waste.
Food waste is a huge problem for both the United States and the world, with almost half of all the food produced ending up in landfills. That means that all of the inputs that go into growing, harvesting, and transporting food — the water, the gasoline, the hours of labor — are essentially wasted, costing the world billions of dollars in economic losses each year. Moreover, wasted food decomposes to release methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is more effective, at least in the short term, at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, if the global emissions associated with food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, behind the United States and China.
Figueiredo wants to change that — he has called selling fruits and vegetables that don’t conform to the standards of perfection mandated by grocery stores the “low hanging fruit” to solving the food waste problem, and has spent years campaigning on the issue. Last year, along with culinary nutritionist Stefanie Sacks, he launched a petition asking that Whole Foods and Walmart commit to selling imperfect, ugly produce in their stores at a discounted rate.
If selling a misshapen apple or knobby carrot sounds like a risky business move for grocery stores, it’s also an idea that is being embraced by more and more supermarkets around the world. Two years ago, Intermarché, the third-largest supermarket in France, launched a program selling imperfect fruits and vegetables at a 30 percent discount — the program was a near-instant success, selling out completely and increasing store traffic by 24 percent. Other stores have followed suit, especially outside of the United States, with large grocery stores in Canada and England also committing to ugly produce programs.
Inside the United States, however, large chains have been slower to move, prompting Figueiredo to launch his petition last year. The petition successfully spurred Whole Foods to commit to selling imperfect produce in a handful of their California stores. The program began in March, in five stores, but has since spread to 11 — according to Figueiredo, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, with much of the produce selling out.
But Figueiredo had yet to receive a response from Walmart, the country’s largest grocer. So he crowd funded a trip to Walmart’s headquarters, and announced that he would be delivering the petition as part of his visit.
That, he said, seemed to get through to the retail giant. Not long after Figueiredo announced his visit, Walmart published a blog post outlining initiatives that it would begin taking to combat food waste — things like switching all their expiration labels to include the language “Best if used by,” which can help prevent food from being thrown away before it actually goes bad, and “exploring” the possibility of selling misshapen fruits and vegetables in their stores. The day before Figueiredo was set to deliver the petition, Walmart announced that it would begin selling 12 varieties of imperfect apples in 300 Florida stores. In May, the store also began selling imperfect potatoes in stores in Texas.
Figueiredo called the initatives “a good step,” but was cautious about the short-term nature of the programs, adding that Walmart would not commit to sourcing these imperfect apples and potatoes consistently every year.
“The impact that Walmart has on anything that they do, if they decide to do anything, it has ripples,” he said. “They are known as a low-cost leader, so why shouldn’t they be selling this produce at a lower cost?”