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Will “wonky” fruit and vegetables help alleviate the U.K.’s cost of living crisis?

Stephen Beard Nov 23, 2022
Heard on:
Ugly produce sales have been on the rise as the cost of living in the U.K. gets more expensive. Mychele Daniau/AFP via Getty Images

Will “wonky” fruit and vegetables help alleviate the U.K.’s cost of living crisis?

Stephen Beard Nov 23, 2022
Heard on:
Ugly produce sales have been on the rise as the cost of living in the U.K. gets more expensive. Mychele Daniau/AFP via Getty Images

Food prices have been rising in the U.K. at their fastest rate in more than 45 years — 16.4% a year, according to the latest set of figures — and that is putting British household budgets under extraordinary additional pressure. The population is already facing the biggest rise in taxation since the Second World War and the steepest fall in living standards on record. But the sharp increase in food prices has had one benign effect: It’s boosted a curious corner of the fresh produce market — ugly fruit and vegetables. 

Historically, supermarkets in the United Kingdom have rejected any produce that is bent, blistered, discolored, distorted, irregular in any other way, or not visually pleasing. “Wonky” is the term Brits use. But, in the current cost of living crisis, the old aversion appears to be waning, and wonky fruit and vegetables seem to be gaining more and more appeal.

“I do buy wonky fruit and veg. It’s a good deal,“ said Derek Keen, one of a number of shoppers outside a supermarket in a small town west of London.

“Yes, I don’t mind it. Why not?” Carla Gettings said.

“The quality is just as good as regular produce“ said Paul Freeman. Rebecca Rainsford added: “I buy it, I’m happy to do so, because it’s cheaper. And it’s fine.”

Hollie Starkey holds a curved leek and parsnip with several roots over a box that reads Wonky Veg Boxes.
“Wonky veg is cheaper, and everyone is trying to look after the pennies at the moment,” said Hollie Starkey, co-owner of Wonky Veg Boxes. (Mimisse Beard/Marketplace)

Sales of imperfect produce are soaring in the U.K. — up almost 20% over the past year — and almost 5 million Brits now buy it regularly.

The reason, said Hollie Starkey, who’s a wonky veg retailer based near the English Midlands city of Leicester, is fairly obvious.

“Cost of living crisis, pure and simple,” she said. “Wonky veg is cheaper. It can be about half the price of cosmetically appealing produce. And everyone’s trying to look after the pennies at the moment. Everyone’s feeling the pinch.”  

Business is brisk for Starkey and her husband and their small firm called Wonky Veg Boxes, which delivers to the doorstep boxes of the kind of fruit and vegetables that supermarkets have automatically rejected.

“Battered carrots, twisted carrots,” Starkey said as she pointed out some of the produce in one of her boxes. “These pears, blemished. Parsnips — this one is thin and knobbly. As you can see, there are varying sizes of leek in this box. Perfectly edible. There’s nothing wrong with them at all.”

Much of what she’s selling has no visible defect. It’s just the wrong size, shape or weight for supermarket packaging. What Starkey finds especially galling is the waste that stringent supermarket demands have entailed.

“There is so much landfill produced by farmers getting rid of food that just won’t sell because of supermarkets’ standards,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with it. You’re literally throwing money into the ground.”   

Precise figures are hard to come by but, according to one survey in 2018, 7.4% of U.K. suppliers’ crops were rejected by retailers due to cosmetic requirements, with some farmers losing up to 40% of their crop.  

Alastair Ferguson, in an orange jacket with reflective stripes, holds some bent carrots and a multirooted parsnip in front of a warehouse.
Alastair Ferguson, commercial manager of Strawsons, a large farming business. (Mimisse Beard/Marketplace)

“The specifications over the last 10 to 15 years in retail produce in the U.K. have been really tight,“ said Alastair Ferguson, a commercial manager for Strawsons, a large farming business, who sells some $35 million worth of carrots and parsnips a year.

“It’s been a little bit ridiculous that we would have to chuck produce away for being not quite straight, not quite the right shade or the right visual appearance,” Ferguson complained. “But the specifications have become easier now and we are using more of our crop.”

Britain’s cost-of-living crisis has accelerated the change in attitude. The big supermarket chains are now making a virtue of flawed produce, launching their own cheaper lines with names like Naturally Wonky and Perfectly Imperfect. Rebecca Tobi of The Food Foundation, which campaigns for sustainable farming, welcomed the move. 

“It’s very important that fruit and vegetables remain affordable for all households, and so if having these lines of wonky veg is helping families to be able to buy fruit and veg, then that’s a good thing,” she said. ”And so is reducing food waste.”   

Dan Crossley, wearing a suit and standing in front of a screen with a photo of farm equipment in a field, gestures to the audience. He's holding a spiral notebook and pen in  one hand.
It’s better to just “call all veg ‘veg,'” says Dan Crossley, head of the Foods Ethics Council. (Courtesy Food Ethics Council)

Dan Crossley of the Food Ethics Council agreed, but also expressed some doubts about the practice of marketing wonky produce as a separate category.   

“It normalizes the ‘misshapen’ veg,'” he said. “What we think it’s better to do is just to call all veg ‘veg’ and encourage more people to eat veg, no matter what it looks like,” Crossley said.

Not everyone’s gotten that memo, however. Among the shoppers we spoke to, Dee Aydan made it clear that she, for one, wouldn’t stomach every piece of wonky fruit and veg.

“It depends what it looks like,” she said. “If it doesn’t look too bad, then I’d probably buy it. But if it’s hideous and looks totally freaky, no, I probably wouldn’t, no.”

But that sort of reaction does seem to be receding. And it’s hardly surprising — with food prices rising at their fastest rate for 45 years, appearances are becoming less important out of necessity.

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