Isabel Soares, an environmental engineer, set out to change that. In 2013 she founded the non-profit Fruta Feia Cooperative (frutafeia.pt/en) to help change consumption patterns, creating an alternative market for “ugly” fruits and vegetables. Winner in two categories of the LIFE Awards 2020, Fruta Feia and their Flaw4Life project recently celebrated their seventh-anniversary serving food-conscious consumers from 18 to 80 across all social classes.
The membership co-op sources products from farmers, sorts them into large (6-8kg, eight types of produce) and small (3-4kg, seven types of produce) baskets, and readies them for weekly consumer pick-ups at designated locations. Expanding from one employee, a single pick-up point, 10 partner farmers, and 100 consumers, the Fruta Feia team now serves up ugly fruit and veg to almost 7,000 consumers from 284 partner farmers at 13 pick-up points, saving a whopping 16.5 tonnes of potential waste weekly. Since the program’s inception, they’ve saved more than 2,900 tons of fruits and vegetables from being wasted. Additionally, the Fruta Feia model is being replicated in the Netherlands, the U.S., and Brazil.
The dedicated team at Fruta Feia sat down with Relish Portugal to talk about food waste, farmers, and making a difference.
Relish Portugal: Give us Fruta Feia in a nutshell.
Fruta Feia: Fruta Feia fights food waste due to appearance, reducing the tons of good quality food that are thrown back to the land by farmers every year, and preventing the unnecessary use of resources on their production, such as water, arable land, energy, and working hours.
To that end, our program channels the ugly fruits and vegetables direct from farmers to consumers who don’t judge the quality by appearance. By changing consumption patterns, we’re working towards a future where all quality fruits and vegetables are marketed equally, regardless of their size, colour, and shape.
RP: Where did the idea for Fruta Feia originate?
FF: Senhora Soares began watching documentaries about food waste and specifically about the problem of food waste due to appearance. Appalled, she spoke to an uncle, who is a farmer. He confirmed that yes, that year alone, he would have to waste 40 percent of his (incredibly sweet) pears simply because they didn’t meet the market’s aesthetic standards.
She realised the significant need to overturn such standardisation trends, which have nothing to do with quality and safety, preventing food waste and the unnecessary waste of resources.
RP: Why is it called Fruta Feia or, in English, Ugly Fruit?
FF: The European Union groups fruits and vegetables into classes, depending on the size, colour, and appearance characteristics (such as stains on the peel), establishing an order of value for these products.
Class “extra” includes big, flawless products; Class I can be a little smaller but still flawless; Class II can be slightly discolored, and so on. So when going to the supermarkets, people started choosing only the Class extra, Class I, and Class II products, the good looking ones, convinced that these were higher quality. Distributors and supermarkets stopped buying ugly fruits and vegetables because consumers were not buying them.
Fruta Feia’s name is designed to call things what they are, to face the problem head-on, and encourage people to reflect on this consumption paradigm. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A misshapen carrot tastes just as delicious as a picture-perfect one.
RP: How do you source your farm partners?
FF: Initially, we went to MARL (Lisbon Area’s Supplying Market), where we found a few local farmers, explained the project, and asked if they wanted to sell us their ugly fruit and vegetables. We had a network of 10 partner farmers when the project began. As we hoped, those farmers started talking about Fruta Feia with other friends and family farmers. Our network grew.
After the kick-start, Fruta Feia was covered on national television and in newspapers, giving us a lot of exposure. In turn, many farmers came to talk with us to sell us what they were unnecessarily wasting. It’s an ongoing activity; we’re always looking to work with new farmers.
RP: How do you choose what’s in each weeks’ baskets?
FF: We choose products for the boxes according to what’s being wasted in the season and the region. Apart from that, every week we try to work with different partner farmers.
RP: How has Fruta Feia been received among the public?
FF: We designed Fruta Feia to launch with 40 consumers. However, the e-mail inviting friends to join the cooperative went viral. Hundreds signed up in two short weeks. We launched with 100 users and another 100 on the waiting list.
Motivation to join the project happens for several reasons: a greater awareness of food waste and a desire to contribute to its reduction; a growing desire to engage in local consumption; the possibility of access to fresh, quality, seasonal and regional products at affordable prices; and also the desire to be part of a collective that works to solve a global problem locally. The close relationship created between the consumers and the project’s promoters at each delivery point creates loyalty and a sense of belonging, strengthening the sense of community.
RP: What have been the less obvious results of the project?
FF: The project has several community and global benefits in addition to the reduction of food waste. Socially and economically, Fruta Feia contributes to the increase in the farmer’s productivity, the revitalisation of the local associations hosting the delivery points, job creation, and an increased feeling of belonging to the project through volunteering and helping to set the boxes. On an environmental level, there’s an increase in resource efficiency via water, energy consumption, soil, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. We also work with other food waste projects and social institutions by donating leftover boxes at the end of the day.
RP: Who works at Fruta Feia? Are you seeking volunteers?
FF: Our small team of permanent employees are from different backgrounds, from environmental engineering to sociology, all sharing the same commitment to fight food waste. This provides a multidisciplinary team with different characteristics and strengths, to better tackle food waste and change consumer thinking. Everyone has identical tasks (e.g. going twice a week to farmers, setting up and selling boxes to the consumers) and a specific responsibility such as accounting, education, managing the farmer network, communication and outreach, etc. The team has a horizontal organisational structure, based on a collective decision-making process.
We count on a team of volunteers to help us set the boxes at each delivery point, always from 2:30 pm to 5 pm. To each volunteer, we offer one small box, as a way to say thank you. We are always looking for volunteers. Anyone interested may write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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