This Pittsburgh CSA gives ‘ugly’ food some love

The 2017 farm share program is sold out, but you can get on the 2018 waiting list now.

Ugly CSA cropped
Sara Innamorato / Courtesy of 412 Food Rescue
Rossilynne Culgan

Truly embracing the adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Pittsburghers are giving “ugly” fruits and vegetables a second chance — and saving gallons upon gallons of water along the way.

For the second summer in a row, 412 Food Rescue’s sold-out Ugly CSA farm share program offers a selection of local produce deemed too “ugly” to be sent to grocery stores.

“There’s this new market for ugly fruits and vegetables,” 412 Food Rescue Program Manager Hana Uman said. “They taste exactly the same.”

It’s about “embracing the misfits” and giving “the ugly fruit and vegetables some love,” said Uman, who was among The Incline’s Who’s Next: Food honorees.

When 412 Food Rescue launched the initiative last year — offering 40 shares for an eight-week period — it sold out in one day. An expanded program this year starts Aug. 8 and runs for 12 weeks. This year’s 120 shares sold out at a cost of $20 per week, and there’s even a waiting list for the 2018 Ugly CSA (you can sign up here). In the future, the organization hopes to expand both the number of shares offered and the time it’s offered.

Collectively, the 120 shares ensure that 204,000 gallons of water do not go to waste, including the water used to produce the food before it was deemed “ugly” and water that would have been used to get rid of the produce. That’s enough drinking water for 1,118 people for an entire year, according to data from 412 Food Rescue.

“In addition to providing a market that the farmers didn’t traditionally have, this is an amazing way to save resources,” she said. “Farmers grew this food. They don’t want to just till it back into the ground or throw it into the compost.”

How the Ugly CSA works

The program is based on a traditional CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm share model.

In this case, local farmers pick out foods deemed “ugly” and provide those foods to Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance, where a team from 412 Food Rescue meets each week to box the food (by the way, packaging volunteers are needed on Wednesday mornings; email if interested).

Then, once it’s boxed up, 412 Food Rescue drops off the food at several Pittsburgh-area distribution sites for CSA participants.

Each week offers something different for subscribers.

“The produce is going to differ based on the season and what’s available,” Uman said. “It’s a nice surprise.”

This year’s subscribers can expect tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants and peppers in the summer, then squash, onions and root vegetables in the fall.

What makes it “ugly?”

So what makes this produce “ugly,” anyway?

“A lot of times you cannot notice the difference. If you were to see the zucchini in the CSA and the zucchini in the farmer’s market, it probably looks pretty similar,” Uman said. “It might be a tomato that has a little nub on it, so it’s not a perfect tomato.”

An “ugly” vegetable could be a carrot with an extra leg or something as minor as a pepper with an extra curve in the shape.

“It’s something on the appearance on the fruit and vegetable that’s just a little bit off than what we would normally see in the grocery store, but it’s grown in exactly the same way. The nutritional value is the same,” Uman said. “Truly, the fruits and vegetables that we include in the Ugly CSA are beautiful.”

In fact, Uman said, the biggest complaint from participants last year: “Why isn’t this as ugly as we thought it would be?”

ugly csa example 3
Sara Innamorato / Courtesy of 412 Food Rescue

“The fruits and vegetables that may not ever make it to the shelves, they look totally fine, and it’s up to us as customers to try and reframe that,” she said.

It can be tough for farmers to find a market for fruits and vegetables that aren’t as “aesthetically pleasing,” Uman said. It’s produce known as “seconds,” sold at a discounted rate to 412 Food Rescue.

“[The Ugly CSA] provides a new funding stream for the farmers in the Penn’s Corner cooperative, which is awesome,” said said.

Because the Ugly CSA foods are grown locally, it’s “pretty much as fresh as you can get,” she said.

“The food that we’re putting in the Ugly CSA is grown in our region, so it’s not getting on a plane and then getting on a train and then getting on a truck, so it’s not going through these various levels of distribution that can cause food to rot,” she said. “That enhances the quality even more so even if it doesn’t look as quote-unquote appealing.”

The Ugly CSA matters, Uman said, because “food waste to me is just a problem that we should not have on this scale.”

“It should not occur that 40 percent of food that we produce in this country is wasted,” she said. “It’s also really important that we are supporting local and regional agriculture.”