Ben Moore has an “Ugly” Solution For Our Food Waste Problem

Americans are wasteful when it comes to food. According to Feeding America “every year, 72 billion pounds of food goes to waste while 37 million Americans struggle with hunger”. Who is responsible for this waste which ends up in our landfills?

Graph showing food waste

Studies have shown that Americans acknowledge food waste is a problem. However, our lifestyle has become so busy that we do not stop to think about how we can reduce this at home. According to the USDA, the highest percentage of household food waste is from fruits and vegetables. Many times, consumers do not have the knowledge nor realize the importance of handling fresh produce correctly. Improper storage will cause the quality to rapidly deteriorate which then ends up in the trash.

During Covid-19, Americans have become increasingly anxious about our food supply. Once the shelter at home orders were recommended schools, restaurants and business closed. Consumers started to stock up on paper products and groceries so they would not need to leave home. Supermarkets were unprepared for the rapid increase in purchases and quickly found their shelves empty. Replenishing basic food supplies has been challenging for many retailers for several weeks. It is difficult to convince people that we do not have a food shortage. What we really have is a disrupted supply chain that was not prepared for this situation. To complicate matters, our household food waste problem is increasing with more people eating at home.

The amount of food loss from farmers has been significantly higher during this pandemic. The food service industry was severely impacted with the closure of restaurants, amusement parks, schools, and hotels. Many farmers grow produce specifically for programs with food service companies. With the sudden stop in business, large amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables were left unharvested in the fields to rot or were thrown away. It was not an easy fix for farmers to make a quick switch from supplying food service to supermarkets. The shortest explanation I can offer is that the customer requirements for food service and retailers is different and it takes time to make the necessary changes.

Vegetables thrown out during Covid-19 pandemic.
Photo credit: AP/Lynne Sladly

Food loss also occurs in the packinghouses as well. Shoppers prefer perfect looking fruits and vegetables. Produce will be discarded in a cull bin if it does not meet the customer specifications and by customer, I am specifically referring to YOU AND ME. As consumers, we have been conditioned to buy fruits and vegetables by appearance and size. When we do this, most of us not aware of how we may be giving up taste.

Culls are the fruit which have been separated out in the packinghouses due to imperfect shape, wrong size, inconsistent color, ripeness and blemished or injured fruit. Farmers have already invested a substantial amount of money in growing and transporting it to the packinghouse. If the fruit is not considered salable, then packing it into a carton only adds additional costs for the farmer who is already operating on tight margins.

What do the packinghouses do with these culls? Culls are sold to food processors who used them for jams and jellies, baked goods, dessert fillings, and other canned foods. These are sometimes used for feeding farm animals. However, as farmers continue to increase production this also means more culls. There is only so much demand from the processors and for animal feed. Therefore, much of this unused fruit ends up in a landfill which is the end of the line for fresh produce. Throwing away fruit which was grown and intended for human consumption is a nothing short of a travesty on so many levels

Meet Ben Moore

Photo credit: Megan Helm Photography

Ben Moore is a U.S. Army veteran and a fourth-generation farmer from Kingsburg California. Kingsburg is a small agriculture town 200 miles southeast of San Francisco. Ben’s family has been farming for over 100 years growing both conventional and organic produce.Throughout the years, they have grown olives, grapes, almonds, wine grapes and soft fruit.

Growing up on a farm, Ben and his two brothers learned about hard work and responsibility at an early age. Ben recalls a time when he was about 8 years old and his father kept him and his brothers at home from school one day. It was the end of the raisin grape season and rain was forecasted for the following day. Rain on grapes during harvest can be disastrous and his father needed all hands-on deck to help finish picking the fruit.

Throughout his adolescence, Ben spent his weekends and summers working on the farm picking fruit, driving a tractor, and pruning grape vines. In fact, during his freshman year at Kingsburg High School Ben and his team won the California FFA (Future Farmers of America) state championship in vine pruning. At the same time, Ben won the title as the Individual State Champion. Ben’s father also held the same championship title back in the 1980s.

Ben Moore (L) Photo Credit: Hanford Sentinel / Kingsburg Recorder

Following high school, Ben left Kingsburg to attend Azusa College where he graduated and went on to serve in the United States Army. After being injured in the Army, Ben returned home to the family farm where he started his own agricultural trucking company called Big Ben Farms. 

Photo credit: Megan Helm Photography

Big Ben Farms partnered with local farmers and packinghouses to help them haul away and dispose of the culls, the unwanted ugly fruit. Every day Ben was hauling several 25-ton truckloads of imperfect fruit to a landfill nearby. More than 2 million pounds of fruit are discarded in landfills within a 15-mile radius of Kingsburg. Ben knew this was a common practice since his own family had done the same.

Photo credit: Megan Helm Photography

However, during the summer of 2017, something changed for Ben. Houston, Texas and Puerto Rico were both hit by hurricanes. The news reported devastating stories of people in Puerto Rico who were left homeless. Many of these people were without water and food. During that same week Ben dumped over 300 tons of edible fruit in a landfill. This made him angry seeing so much fruit being wasted because of minor imperfections while so many people were going hungry. Ben knew in order to make a difference he had to act. In 2018, he created The Ugly Company.

The Ugly Company takes the discarded fruit and upcycles this into healthy snacks. The main reason much of this fruit was discarded in the first place is because it was not aesthetically appealing to customers, hence the name The Ugly Company. The fruit used for these snacks is California grown and USDA approved. It is 100% all natural and non-GMO. One package of these dried snacks prevents 1 pound of fruit going to our landfills. The Ugly Fruits snacks are now being sold in high end retailers and coffee shops throughout the southern California area. These can be found in Whole Foods, Erewhon Market, Café Bolivar, Kafe K, Two Cities Coffee Roasters, Hi-Fi Expresso, Two Guns Expresso and of course on the Ugly Company website.

The Ugly Company website provides videos of behind the scene footage showing the excessive amounts of fruit being dumped into landfills. These videos also share in detail why farmers are not able to sell this fruit, why it is not easy for farmers to donate their produce to local food banks and why stone fruit (peaches, plums and nectarines) is not a preferred compost used for growing food.

They also encourage consumers to advocate against food waste and “bring value back to the farm.” Society has a misconception of how fruits and vegetables must be blemish free. The Ugly Company wants people to understand that this need for perfect looking produce is contributing to a substantial amount of food waste not to mention lost revenue to farms throughout the country. Ben Moore and the Ugly Company’s answer for food waste may seem trivial to a mammoth problem. However, we must start somewhere and if everyone contributes the impact could be significant.

Food loss and food waste is everyone’s problem. We have 37 million people in our country who struggle with hunger. We do not have a food shortage in our country rather we have a disconnected supply chain. Every year at least 20 billion pounds of fresh produce is wasted. Farmers are not in the business of growing food only to have it left to rot in a field or dumped in a landfill. Additionally, an enormous amount of resources is being wasted, not to mention the long-term damage of rotting produce wreaking havoc on our environment.

For more information on the ‘ugly” solution to food waste check out the Ugly Company website.