Meet the MISFITs: Jordan Figueiredo / by Ann Yang

Sustainability specialist by day, food waste warrior by night-- Jordan Figueiredo makes ugly fruits and veggies come alive through the "UglyFruitAndVeg" campaign.  

The social media campaign educates consumers about food waste by turning pictures of misfit fruits and veggies into characters and hilarious puns. With 70k followers on Twitter and 30k followers on Instagram, Jordan's reimagining storytelling around food waste. 

 

Why ugly fruit and veggies? What was your life like before you became a leading advocate for fighting produce prejudice?

I come from a zero-waste world, that’s my day job—working with a small town to reduce waste in businesses and schools, I do workshops, I speak at schools and I also work on setting up the composting and recycling systems with businesses and schools.  A few years ago a lot of people in that industry were content with just composting the food that was going to waste, but I wanted to do more about that.  I developed The Zero Food Waste Forum with Dana Gunders and then while I was developing that I also did Feeding the 5,000 Oakland.  After all of those events I kind of wondered what I was going to do to keep going and the more I developed Feeding the 5,000 Oakland, the more I was struck with how much produce waste was happening. 

I decided to develop “UglyFruitAndVeg” as a way to draw attention to the issue because not many people were talking about it.  There were a lot of articles but they were primarily consumer focused and I thought more attention needed to be drawn to this low-hanging fruit issue up the supply chain.  There were plenty of funny images out there and I just started to pull from those and gather some of my own from farmers market hauls, and then it just took on a life of its own.  It’s only been about a year and a half.

That’s unbelievable; you’ve gained so much traction in such a short span of time.

Thanks yeah, it’s just amazing.  It resonates with people so well.  Once you tell people that we’re wasting all of this produce for really ridiculous reasons, they’re on board to help reduce it.  And then of course they see the images and then want to follow, they think it’s fun, they want to share their pictures. I hear people telling me all of the time, “I think of you when I see ugly produce,” or they’re like “Look what I found in the market or look what I found in the store.”

"Pomegranate Frowny Face" 

"Pomegranate Frowny Face" 

 "Once you tell people that we’re wasting all of this produce for really ridiculous reasons, they’re on board to help reduce it."

What are your thoughts on the new “Save the Food Campaign”?  Do you think it will help gain more traction on food waste and get more people captivated by the issue of food waste?

 I think it’s definitely great to have the Ad Council on board with the “end food waste” movement and they’re leveraging a lot of funding and partnerships to get that message out to a lot of people. We’ve had a crazy amount of media over the last year and a half, not just for ugly produce but for food waste in general, so we’ve reached millions and millions of people.  But even still, with all of that media it’s so hard to reach everybody so I think the Ad Council and NRDC Campaign is going to be huge. Obviously it’s consumer focused again, but it’s going to be able to reach so many people. I mean the first video is great!

Yeah, “the Life and Times of a Strawberry” is so cute!

It is! And I think what they’re trying to do also is leverage all of the potential local programs they can plug into so all of their resources can be sort of repurposed or reused by cities and counties and states.  So hopefully, that’s where they can really get the traction.  Commercials have a shelf life and can only reach so many people so hopefully it’s their resources and content getting reused by people, which could be really huge, because a lot of local programs don’t really work on food waste and there’s only 5% of the country composting and then in the rest of the country, not many people are working on preventing food waste right now, so it could be very impactful.

Prior to the “Save the Food” campaign you were one of the only campaigns that was really reaching out to civil society groups and trying to become a popular movement that anyone could get involved in.  Have individuals, faith communities, or other groups reached out to you as well to come speak? Beyond your own community waste initiatives has it gained traction in that way?

The petition got a lot of interest by all kinds of different folks that think that Walmart and Whole Foods should be selling ugly produce without wasting it.  There’s actually one interfaith council in Ann Arbor, Michigan that took it upon themselves to gather signatures and petition their local Whole Foods so that was pretty cool—I think they got a few hundred signatures.  Someone else in Chicago petitioned through Change.org a local market and it got around 5,000 signatures so that was cool.  And yeah I’ve been offered to speak at many different places. 

The tough part is, I do all of this with my own free time. So it’s another 20-30 hour a week job I don’t get paid anything for.  99% of what I do is for free so I can’t necessarily go speak somewhere if they can’t pay for hotel and airfare, so there have been a number of times when people have wanted me to speak and I haven’t been able to pay for it myself. Only now am I sort of starting to explore partnerships with like-minded companies.   

But there are some! I am going to a conference in Denver in July and it’s this International Baccalaureate student convention, so I’m speaking to students there.  Some private school in Southern California wants me to speak later in the year so that will be interesting.  The message really resonates well with students so I’m hoping that that will expand more.  But most of the places I am speaking at are industry.  I’m going to keynote at a recycling association conference in Oregon in June, I’m also speaking at a session at Harvard’s Reduce and Recover Event. The unfortunate part is most of my speaking arrangements are at foodie focused events, so I hope it can expand some more.

How did you decide to use Change.org as a platform? Were there other ways you previously thought about to disseminate more information about food waste and ugly fruits and veggies?

Obviously the reason why I use the images is to draw people in and then talk more about the issue. I’ve been able to expand it to more than just ugly produce. I post articles all the time about food waste in general, or tips to reduce food waste and promoting good organizations doing so. I had been doing it for about 8 – 10 months and I was like, “Wow, look at all these people paying attention, I’ve got to do something more than just get media and followers and have people re-post stuff.” So when I talked to a bunch of people who know about activism, they said you should definitely do a petition to a couple large grocers. So that’s kind of how it developed, because I wanted to do more, I wanted to make more of an impact. I only have so much time, that the petition was a great way to leverage and rally consumer demand more for the produce that grocers said people won’t buy.

"The Shy Okra Alligator"

"The Shy Okra Alligator"

"I wanted to do more, I wanted to make more of an impact. I only have so much time, that the petition was a great way to leverage and rally consumer demand more for the produce that grocers said people won’t buy."

What does it feel like now to have had some wins? Does it get you more motivated to keep going, or is it just a small step on a long road?

It is exciting. Whole Foods Market just started selling the bags of imperfect mandarins and then “ugly” baby potatoes the other day, which is cool that they’re starting. But it’s such a small step, there’s plenty more to do and plenty more grocers. It is at least encouraging that finally the U.S. is trying it because there’s been so much action in Europe and even in Canada. I think one of their second largest grocers selling imperfect produce all over the country. In food waste in general, there’s been so much more awareness since I started this campaign. That was the other thing too – trying to get the attention of the foodie culture. A lot of food waste still has that yuck factor, or it’s not sexy like baking cakes is. So that’s why I wanted to show ugly produce or funny-looking produce to real foodies, who love food in any shape or form. Still, a lot of the chefs or folks who take this cause on, do one thing and then they stop and move on to something else, thinking they can come back to it later. But we really need people with large audiences – kind of like Dan Barber has – and make food waste more sexy than it is. The foodie culture is so vibrant and growing, and now they’re even getting involved in politics more, but food waste is not quite on that level. But it could be.

"Birds of Fruit"

"Birds of Fruit"

"I wanted to show ugly produce or funny-looking produce to real foodies, who love food in any shape or form."

Do you ever worry that food waste will be a fleeting issue?

I did. When we first started getting a ton of attention on ugly produce, I thought, “Oh man, I hope this doesn’t fade.” It’s been over a year and a half and the media is still pretty good. I don’t think it will fade any more, I think this is here to stay. Especially when you’ve got things like the ReFed Report, and all the industry folks and resources that went into that. And then the “Save the Food Campaign” by NRDC and the Ad Council – there’s a lot of resources going into preventing food waste now. And the media just keeps running stories, it’s almost like they can’t get enough ugly produce stories. I don’t want to speak too soon but it sounds like it’s here to stay.

Right, if you Google “food waste” on any given day, there will be 5 new articles on the issue.

If we keep tapping into what makes it more interesting, then it will stay an issue. I think the problem with what happened before – about 1 or 2 years ago – is it was too focused on composting. That’s not inspiring, that’s not engaging people enough. Only 5% of the country can even do it without their own curbside bin. Of course there’s so much more that needs to be done, the goal of the USDA and EPA to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030 is a pipe dream compared to where we’re at now.

But it’s still the first-ever national target on food waste reduction, which is pretty exciting.

It is exciting! But I wish they would be doing more and funding more. A lot of what the USDA and EPA do is talk about it, connect people or share best practices. But they don’t put enough money into it, or complete enough studies or reports. It’s more sharing stories and talking about it, and then setting a big goal. They need to do more about it, not depend on everybody else.  

What gets your creativity pumping? You never seem to run out of quirky ways to bring ugly fruit and veggies to life. How do you stay creative and remain excited about this issue?

It is interesting how it just keeps coming. I actually didn’t even script my posts for a long time and now I’ve started typing them out in advance, I’ve only been doing that for about the past year or so. I used to just do them off the top of my head, but after I got so many followers I was like, “I need to pay more attention,” because some of the posts don’t exactly perform as well as they could.

It’s amazing the shapes and forms and colors in nature. This is how fruits and vegetables grow naturally, and it’s all over the world. People send me pictures from all over the world and I get stuff every day where I’m like, “Wow that’s awesome!” I also am getting obsessed myself, I go to the farmer’s market and try to find things. I didn’t used to eat nearly as much produce as I do now; the last year and a half has been transformative for both me and my family. My son thinks that fruit is a dessert, and that’s pretty much what he gets for most desserts. Now we’re getting into smoothies more and I’m secretly throwing kale into his smoothies because he hates salad. He’s only 5 and he won’t eat any lettuce whatsoever but if I throw kale into the smoothie, he’ll eat it.

There’s just so many fruits and vegetables and they come in so many amazing shapes and forms. Of course I’m really lucky to live in California where we have everything – it’s insane. Nature provides all the inspiration I need. But of course, pop culture is in there too. I try to keep it only the most recognizable pop culture references.

We love your posts, they’re so entertaining but also it’s a great way to learn about the new kinds of fruits and veggies that are out there and about produce in general.  

I keep learning more too; I hardly knew anything about produce before I started this. But I think that’s part of the amazing gift of celebrating all of these imperfections in fruits and vegetables, it really makes eating fruits and vegetables more interesting. Now I get all of these people telling me they’re trying to buy different-looking fruits and vegetables so they are really appreciating them more for looking funny or ugly or beautiful. And then people tell me even their kids are trying to find this type of produce too. So I wish I had more time and could talk to more students, because this is another way to get kids to eat more produce too. I didn’t even know until a few months ago that only 13% of Americans eat enough produce. It’s not just kids, it’s adults too.

"Daikon Radish Lady"

"Daikon Radish Lady"

"I think that’s part of the amazing gift of celebrating all of these imperfections in fruits and vegetables, it really makes eating fruits and vegetables more interesting."

It seems like Berkeley and Oakland have been areas with a lot of action on food waste, including Feeding the 5000 Oakland and Imperfect Produce. Can you tell us East Coasters about how the West Coast has been at the forefront of combating food waste and what lessons we can learn from them?  

I don’t know if it’s a function of the West Coast having a lot of produce, or environmental activists, or a lot of foodies, or if it’s because of folks here that are a lot more familiar with composting than most other places in the country. It’s a mixture of all of it; we just have this perfect combination of people who want to do good for the environment, people who love food, and we have a lot of governments that get it, which really helps. There are a lot of great non-profits here as well as NRDC, which has offices on both coasts. It’s a mixture of a lot of things that make it a great place to attack this issue. Having half of the country’s produce grown in California definitely makes it an easier target. Food waste action is pretty strong here in lots of ways; the governments here are involved way more than most places in the country. They weren’t a few years ago, but now they are so it’s pretty cool.

We’re a little envious of the West Coast sometimes, because although there are definitely people in DC and New York who are interested in food waste, the conversations tend to be more technical and academic, versus on the West Coast where people aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.   

We’ve got all the “dirty hippies” out here (jokingly) who are diving in dumpsters! I’ve been dumpster diving and eaten food from dumpsters before, so it’s a different culture out here. We’re not afraid to get dirty to make an impact, that’s for sure.