Can These ‘Ugly’ Emojis Help Make Imperfect Produce the Norm?

Zero-food-waste activists aren’t waiting for tech companies to officially add these stickers to smartphone keyboards.
Unshapely carrot; unshapely carrot emoji. (Photos: Brigitte Blättler/Getty Images; Courtesy Hungry Harvest)
Oct 7, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Shari Sharpe is an editorial intern at TakePart.

From Kim Kardashian’s $1-a-minute-earning Kimoji to the cartoon avatars made popular by Bitmoji, there has been a surge of successful apps that offer smartphone users additional emojis. Now a group of zero-food-waste activists are jumping on the shareable-image bandwagon in the hopes of boosting awareness of the “ugly” fruit and veggie movement.

To that end, Hungry Harvest, a Baltimore-based company that collects and redistributes misshapen produce to consumers and charities, has launched a petition asking Apple, Google, and Unicode to create and implement ugly produce emojis. Pefectly shaped and sized apples, strawberries, or tomatoes come standard on our smartphone keyboards. Why don’t we have gnarled, bumpy fruits and veggies “that have more personality, better express our feelings, AND help bring awareness to some of the biggest issues of our time?” asks the petition.

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“The concept is trying to bring awareness of the food waste issue to a younger audience, and in a fun way,” Ritesh Gupta, the director of impact at Hungry Harvest, told TakePart. The company, which snagged a $100,000 investment on an episode of Shark Tank in January, has two main values: Food should not go to waste, and people should never go hungry. “The food waste movement, ugly produce, and all of that has definitely been talked about a lot. But sometimes it can feel like we are talking to the same people constantly,” Gupta said.

(Photo: Courtesy Hungry Harvest)

Because of the scope of the food waste problem, this is not the first initiative to direct attention to the stock of eerily “perfect” fruits and vegetables in grocery stores nationwide. Over the past year, the Ugly Fruit and Veg Campaign has petitioned stores such as Walmart and Whole Foods to stock misshapen produce. A major part of why there is so much produce waste is because of “cosmetic standards from large grocers that dictate exactly how fruits and veggies should look,” Ugly Fruit and Veg Campaign founder Jordan Figueiredo said in Hungry Harvest’s petition.

About one-third of all food produced—about 1.7 billion tons—is lost or wasted along the food chain, according to a 2014 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Hungry Harvest’s petition cites annual data from a report released last spring by ReFED that found roughly 20 billion pounds of produce goes to waste every year. At the same time, 50 million Americans are food insecure.

(Photos: Courtesy Hungry Harvest)

Figueiredo’s effort seems to be changing the mind of Walmart, but there is still more to be done to normalize ugly produce in the minds of the American public. Gupta said supporting emojis that confront what are now standard preconceptions of how fruit and vegetables should look opens the dialogue about food waste in a “very nonaggressive way.”

With a goal of not wasting food, Hungry Harvest is also not wasting time. The company has taken the proactive step of creating a free “Ugly Produce!” app that’s downloadable from iTunes. The emojis allow zero-food-waste activists such as Hungry Harvest and Ugly Fruit and Veg to engage with the “same audience in different ways” while also tackling the challenge of bringing in other audiences who may be younger and “might want to talk about the issue, but not in such a serious context,” Gupta said.

(Photos: Courtesy Hungry Harvest)

The emojis—such as a slice of watermelon with a smiley face—were designed to convey the same emotions people normally see and are already expressing on their mobile devices. “It had to be cute. It had to be relatable, and that’s why we are so cognizant of using items and emotions that people are already thinking about. I’ve never heard someone think about a watermelon and cry. Watermelons are universally loved,” Gupta said with a laugh.

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The petition has been signed by about 400 supporters, and Hungry Harvest hasn’t heard from Apple, Google, or Unicode. But the feedback Gupta has received from users about the emojis has been positive, with some commenting that the “ugly” name of the app is contrary to how the digital stickers actually look.

If Google and Apple “are able to give a nod to this idea—ugly produce and food waste—it will just validate the movement even more than it’s already validated,” Gupta said. “I think it’s really a home run for everybody.”