Austin needs ‘ugly’ food subscription services

Laura Hallas

Every UT student has experienced the moldy blueberry problem. The phenomenon is characterized by excitement for fresh produce, only to realize that the fruits or vegetables you just bought  are already in a state of decay. It is an emotionally and financially devastating moment to say the least. 

Convenience, cost and freshness are all enemies of student shoppers, especially when it comes to the foods considered most healthy for us. “Ugly” food subscription services offer a perfect combination of fresh, cheap and sustainable eats.  

Ugly foods are called by a multitude of names, but the basic idea is that farmers and grocers are unable to sell aesthetically flawed produce. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with these fruits or vegetables. They just don’t hold up to the aesthetic standards that consumers have cultivated over time. In the U.S., an estimated 20 percent of produce is lost in harvesting, partially because of workers’ attempts to meet the standards specified by retailers. Overall, the food supply chain has resulted in $165 billion worth of losses. 

Leftover produce deemed unfit for market shelves is usually left to rot or thrown out, an inefficiency that some food entrepreneurs are capitalizing on. Unwanted food is bought cheaply, boxed up by employees and delivered to subscribing customers on a weekly basis. Customers can request their preferred mixes of fruits and vegetables and pay only a fraction of the market cost for the same fruits and vegetables. The produce isn’t rotted or odd-tasting — just aesthetically challenged.

The business model has already succeeded in cities across the U.S., including the Bay Area’s Imperfect Produce, and New York’s Hungry Harvest. But these metropolitan areas don’t have a monopoly on their demand for fresh foods. Texas has more farms and ranches than any other state, and farmers markets are already becoming mainstream. Austin doesn’t have such a service yet, but the demand definitely exists. Neil Kaufman, Division of Housing and Food Services sustainability director, said that students and staff have already shown their enthusiasm for fresh foods. 

“[Fresh food] is something that students, faculty and staff have come to expect. Every time we have an event [such as the UT Farm Stand], people are always asking ‘why don’t you do this more often?,’” Kaufman said. “We sell out at almost all of our events.” 

Groups like UT’s farm stand help to address the food desert around campus, but a stand run by volunteers once every three weeks cannot fully keep up with demand. A subscription service helps make the concept a sustainable business model, while potentially still costing students less than a trip to HEB. 

Austin is the perfect place for such a service. The city is ranked as the best city for young entrepreneurs and already promotes innovative ideas about food through groups like Food and City and Food Tech Meetup

A food subscription service in Austin is overdue. Such a service would ensure freshness, keep down costs and offer ethical and sustainable solutions to food waste. Students and faculty should make clear their desire for such a sustainable model — you might just be rewarded with a box of fruit at your door.

Hallas is a Plan II and health and society sophomore from Allen. She is a senior columnist. Follow her on Twitter @LauraHallas.