Sarah Phillips: Why Ugly Produce is Beautiful

by Kyle Rabin

Published: 12/22/16, Last updated: 5/24/19

Sarah Phillips is a baking expert, cookbook author, photographer and founder of Ugly Produce Is Beautiful, a brilliantly clever way of encouraging people to buy and cook with ugly produce while reducing and preventing food waste. Sarah is also CEO and founder of and founder and CEO of FoodEMedia, a food, health and lifestyle social media agency based in New York City. Read on to find out what inspires Sarah’s work, how she got hooked on fighting food waste and what she would change about our food system.

How did you get involved in the food waste issue?

It happened a long time ago. It first started with my awareness of ugly produce. The 1950s was the beginning of Madison Avenue and the push for eating uniform and processed foods for families in America. I remember! I begged my parents to take me to the mid-western food factories, nearby where I first lived in Chicago, for fun, where I could see food being processed because this was a new concept — I remember the Quaker Oats factory. In kindergarten, in the suburb where we lived, I remember the opening of the first supermarket. I used to go there and look at the shiny cans of food lined up on the shelves and the uniform and plastic wrapped produce — I just stared; everything looked so perfect, so untouchable, so sterile and so foreign to me.

Now I realize that I may have been staring at some of the beginnings of the Ugly Produce Problem — standardized produce size, processed food, the rise in factory farms, the beginnings of industrialized food for the masses and the decline of localized food because now, with canned goods and frozen foods, one could get year round produce. We didn’t eat any of it because my mother canned all of her organic vegetables from the garden — besides, she said the stuff in cans was so unflavorful, lacked in vitamins, had chemicals in it and she wouldn’t have any of it for her family. We tasted the food from the grocery store and didn’t like it.

Fast forward sixty years later, I started reading articles and science papers on what happened to the misfit produce or ugly produce, and how much is wasted. I became alarmed and ashamed about our Food Waste Problem. I have now focused my energy on this issue. I know that I have something to contribute and can help!

© 2016 Sarah Phillips / UglyProduceIsBeautiful

Ugly Produce Is Beautiful plays an important role to increase awareness about food waste and hunger in the US. Tell us about it.

Every year, some 2.9 trillion pounds of food — about a third of all that the world produces — never gets consumed. It’s enough to feed the nearly 800 million people worldwide who suffer from hunger more than twice over, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Fruits and vegetables, or produce, gets wasted at a higher rate within that number.

Part of the produce food waste problem in the United States are some six billion pounds of produce, on an annual basis, that go unharvested or unsold largely for aesthetic reasons. These outcasts are being called “ugly produce” or “imperfect produce” by the media — produce that is deformed, wonky, crooked or misshapen. We’re not talking about “rotten produce” or that which is spoiled, moldy or so inedible as to make someone ill.

It’s largely because we have the long-time Department of Agriculture or the USDA Grades and Standards for Fruits and Vegetables in the marketplace, that provide the fruit, vegetable and specialty crop growers and buyers with an exacting language for describing the quality and condition of these commodities for sale, although in some states farmers’ markets are exempt. (The standards are also used for mediating disputes.) Although these standards are called voluntary, they are essentially market driven — the perfect produce that we see in stores. So produce not meeting those standards gets rejected and wasted, and is now being described as “ugly produce.”

Even if food reaches our markets, homes, and dinner plates, studies have shown that in medium- and high-income countries, such as the United States, food is wasted and lost mainly at later stages in the supply chain: According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. This not only means that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also that the uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of US municipal solid waste where it accounts for a large portion of US methane emissions.”

Produce is particularly prone to spoil and is the largest component of post-harvest food waste. The main reasons are:

  1. Retailers order, serve and display too much food, and it starts to age and turn off customers — e.g., bananas with tiny brown spots — as a result, most will throw it out; and,
  2. Consumers buy too much food, don’t have time to cook and it spoils — and they simply have to discard it.

Through our website and our @UglyProduceIsBeautiful Instagram, I hope to encourage people to buy and cook with ugly produce, and to build a community — a community of those of us who feel passionate about changing the ways American’s think about ugly produce — that it’s actually beautiful, nutritious and can be used in recipes. And, in turn, we can help prevent so much food waste. Some solutions are being utilized: unharvested produce is being “gleaned” or gathered in the fields, and it, as well as aged produce, is being sold at a discount or donated to food banks or charities. Farmers by nature aren’t wasters and they feed ugly produce to livestock, cook with it and give it away or sell it at farmers’ markets.

We also hope that we can educate you about ways to use and store produce at home, to help eliminate so much food waste.

But we need more solutions.

What’s the best way for people to make a difference?

It’s not too late to invoke change in the way we eat and how we eat and what and where we buy. Ask your local grocer to bring in more ugly produce to sell at a discount. Educate yourself about this Ugly Produce Problem and how devastating it is to our planet in terms of waste and pollution. Write your local or state government officials calling for change.

But more importantly: Actions speak louder than words! Put your money where your mouth is! Money talks, so spend your produce dollars at your local Farmers’ Market and buy ugly produce! Others will take notice!

Learn more about the fruits and vegetables in the market. Learn how to cook and bake with ugly produce. Take matters into your own hands. Follow my handy guides and information, found in the Recipes and Learn Sections of my website.

What’s one thing about food waste that you wish more people knew?

How to utilize fresh produce more in recipes — that’s why we are writing and posting recipes on my and on my sites.

Tell us about the role your photography plays in your work?

Through my styling and photography on my Instagram account @UglyProduceIsBeautiful (, I hope to show how beautiful and natural all produce is; that ugly produce is beautiful. Along with each photo, I also post text with informative information about food waste and how to prevent it, how to store the produce in the photo, any recipes we have on the site, interesting facts about the produce or social issues surrounding the particular produce type.

What do you find to be your biggest source of inspiration day-to-day? What’s most exciting and compelling in regards to innovations and solutions?

My biggest inspiration comes from the produce itself.

I think it’s exciting when someone posts on my @UglyProduceIsBeautiful Instagram feed that “I didn’t know that,” or “thank you for the information” or “now I won’t throw that away because now I know it can be eaten still!”

If you had a magic wand, what would you change about the food system?

That notion that seeds have been privatized and commercialized, and the rise in seedless varieties. I think it’s a very dangerous practice. The fact that ten of the largest agrochemical companies now control over half of global proprietary seeds. As a result, seed diversity has been compromised. I think that this is a much bigger threat to our planet than anything else that is happening in the food space.

Keep up with Sarah and Ugly Produce Is Beautiful:

Instagram: @UglyProduceIsBeautiful
…and @food

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