The Beauty of Ugly Produce

Querfeld works to reduce food waste, while increasing farmers' income and providing consumers with access to affordable organic food.

by Daniel Larrivee, April 27, 2017
Beauty of Ugly Fruit

Originally published November 18, 2016.

Have you ever wondered what happened to the fruits and vegetables that don't make it to the shelves in the grocery stores? How much produce is wasted simply because it doesn't fit standards for shape or size?

Currently up to 30% of a harvest is sorted out just because the fruits or vegetables don’t correspond to conventional ideas of beauty (e.g. they are too small, too big, deformed or have minor flaws). Querfeld wants to change that, while also increasing farmers' income and providing consumers with affordable organic food. 

We caught up with Frederic Goldkorn, the founder of Querfeld, to talk about why he is so passionate about this issue. Keep reading to see the challenges he and his team have faced, how much of an impact Querfeld is making, and the promising future he sees for Querfeld.

What was your motivation for starting Querfeld?

During my Master’s degree, I dealt with the issue of food waste a lot and simply couldn’t believe that so much food is thrown away only because of its aesthetics. I came to Berlin afterwards and talked to farmers, as well as people engaged in this field, such as the film maker Valentin Thurn. After I realized that the situation was really that bad and only very few people – such as the Culinary Misfits – were dealing with it, I decided to join or found a company that actively combats this problem. With Lauthals (the three designers who started ugly fruits as a communication project) and Stefan (one of my co-founders) I found great people with a similar mindset and we decided to start the company together.

Querfeld has three aims: to reduce food waste, to provide farmers with additional income and to provide organic food at affordable prices. How exactly do you accomplish this?

Those three aims basically go hand-in-hand. Currently up to 30% of a harvest is sorted out just because the fruits or vegetables don’t correspond to conventional ideas of beauty (e.g. they are too small, too big, deformed or have minor flaws). What most people don’t know is that the EU marketing standards were almost completely repealed in 2009. However, retailers claim that customers are so used to perfectly shaped fruits and vegetables that they won’t buy anything that doesn’t conform with the standards, while customers say that they are not given the opportunity to buy “ugly” fruits in the first place. 

Querfeld wants to break this vicious circle. We buy those “ugly” fruits and veggies directly from organic farmers and re-sell them to business customers such as caterers, canteens, schools and smoothie bars. The farmers suggest fair prices for their products, so that selling their food to us is much more profitable than converting the fruits into animal food or green manure for example. The prices are below wholesale averages and allow us to offer high quality organic fruits and vegetables to a wide range of customers. Consumers demand more and more organic food. However, kitchens sometimes don’t have the budget to afford organic fruits and vegetables. Querfeld creates value for high quality fruits and vegetables that would otherwise not be consumed, rewards the farmers’ work, and gives a larger group of consumers the opportunity to eat healthy organic food. 

Which farms do you work with and what has been their response to your idea? 

We’ve started with local organic farms from Brandenburg for our Berlin customers and from Bavaria for our Munich customers. Germany has a great variety of organic fruits and vegetables but during the winter months, our offer shrinks considerably and our customers demand a greater selection of products. So we decided to cooperate with organic farmers from Austria and Spain. Our priority is to save high quality food and widening our circle of providers gives us much more leverage. 

We established very good relations with our farmers. Besides providing them with an additional income, we make sure that their hard work is valued. It is difficult for them to see the work and energy they put into producing the fruits and vegetables being wasted as well.

However, in the beginning it wasn’t quite easy to get those farmers on board. Especially around Berlin, farmers are often contacted by people from the city who come up with (often great) ideas but lack the capacity to realize them. Therefore, many reacted quite skeptically in the beginning. After proving to them that we are able to sell large amounts of their produce, we were able to convince many. But until we increase the amount of fruit sold and continue our success, some skepticism will remain.

What has been your impact to date? 

Last year we were able to distribute around 10 tons of fruit and vegetables through various channels, such as food waste events, festivals and some deliveries. This summer we started delivering to B2B customers in Munich and Berlin and have so far managed to sell 20 tons. Currently we are selling around two tons every week.

While we see the distribution to business customers as the best way to deal with the problem on a large scale, we also think it is highly important to create more awareness for the problem. Therefore, we organize events like the cherry harvest, small markets at universities. We also take part in events with other initiatives, such as Restlos Glücklich, Foodsharing, Meal Saver, WWF, and the Welthungerhilfe.

What has been the greatest challenge in establishing Querfeld and how did you overcome it?

The uncertainty and coordination of information regarding the availability of the produce was a major challenge. Customers expect a broad offering, not only one or two products. However, farmers do not plan to grow “ugly fruits” and therefore can hardly predict the availability. At the same time, it discourages farmers when you continuously call and ask for what they have available but cannot buy it in the end because customers don’t want it. 

We solved that by cooperating with only a few farmers that offer many products in the beginning. Therefore, we were able to provide them with relevant incomes while offering our customers at least a certain variety. Step by step we are able to add farmers to the offering and thereby increase the impact and the range of products.

In your opinion, what needs to happen in order to end the fruit and vegetable ‘beauty craze’ on a broad scale?

Every time I tell people about Querfeld and the problem we try to tackle, they seem to be very surprised about the fact that even in organic agriculture, so much food is sorted out. I think there is a big lack of information. Most people I talk to about the topic wouldn’t mind buying “ugly” fruits and vegetables. They are just not given the opportunity. Besides selling the products, we want to inform consumers about the amount of food that is wasted just because of aesthetic flaws. With our campaigns, we want to illustrate the absurdity of the situation and encourage people to rethink their consumer behaviour. In the end it is the demand that determines the offer. We think that the more people know about the problem the more they will reclaim natural diversity.

Until supermarkets and wholesalers buy the entire harvest, the problem will keep existing. Therefore, it is our mission to make the information about the availability of those products easily accessible to a broad range of interested customers.

What’s next for Querfeld?

We want to enable farmers throughout Europe to offer those products they cannot sell due to aesthetic reasons or simply because they had an unexpectedly good harvest and have surplus produce. In order to do so, those offerings need to be visible to as many customers as possible. Therefore, we are currently working on an online platform that we can directly match customers with farmers. The online market place will help us to reach a much wider range of clients and suppliers and allows us to save much more ugly fruits and vegetables. This summer we extended our team with programmers that are doing an awesome job in building the platform. 

What makes you a changer?

Nobody should be discriminated by their looks. Neither should high quality food be wasted just because of some old-fashioned beauty standards. We break those standards and bring back natural diversity - because taste is not a matter of appearance.