Few things are more unappealing than a lumpy, bruised potato covered in sprouts. But leave it to the French to make it look sexy.

A campaign by the French supermarket chain Intermarché is on a mission to make shoppers see the inner beauty in scarred, disfigured, or otherwise odd-shaped fruits and vegetables. The message: Why throw away perfectly good produce just because it doesn’t meet arbitrary cosmetic criteria — especially when so many families can’t afford to eat the five daily portions of fruits and vegetables recommended by nutritionists?

“Now, you can eat five ‘inglorious’ fruits and vegetables a day. As good, but 30 percent cheaper,” says an Intermarché promotional video, trumpeting the virtues of the “the grotesque apple, the ridiculous potato, the hideous orange, the failed lemon, the disfigured eggplant, the ugly carrot, and the unfortunate clementine.” Here’s an English version of the video:

The French are eating it up like chocolat. After Intermarché launched the campaign in March, it sold out of its ugly fruits and vegetables within the first two days, and saw a 24 percent increase in traffic in participating stores. Now it’s looking to expand the program to its 1,474 supermarkets all over France.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Unnecessary waste

We sure could eat more ugly veggies over on this side of the pond. A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that Americans toss a whopping 52 percent of the country’s fruits and vegetables — more than any other food group. A significant part of that loss occurs before the produce ever leaves the field.

Part of the problem is the structure of our industrialized food system. It’s made up of a few large buyers and many suppliers, leading to a situation where the largest purchasers have the power to dictate the terms of a sale. Marketing orders issued by trade associations specify the exact size, diameter, consistency, and color required for a certain product to be considered “grade A,” and if a fruit or vegetable doesn’t make the cut, its retail price drops dramatically.

When prices are too low, it costs a farmer more to harvest his or her field than he or she would make by the sale of the produce. If a field turns up “sub-standard” produce — which sometimes just means carrots half an inch too small — the farmer may be forced not to harvest it, leaving entire crops of perfectly edible, nutritious food to go to waste.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Standards are a necessary trade tool for retailers, for them to know what they’re getting when they buy in bulk quantities, explained Dana Gunders, a food waste expert at the NRDC. The problem, she says, is that today’s standards are ridiculously high.

As California organic farmer David Mas Masumoto put it in The Sacramento Bee, “If we picked our friends the way we selectively picked and culled our produce, we’d be very lonely.”

(Believe it or not, ripeness and taste aren’t part of marketing order standards — which explains why supermarket aisles are chock-full of great-looking, uniform peaches that taste like cardboard. Just sayin’.)

All about marketing

Gunders believes American consumers are far more open to odd-shaped produce than supermarket managers give them credit for. Sure, if given the choice between a great-looking tomato and a lumpy one, most might initially reach for the beauty queen. But enticed with a discount and presented with a light-hearted yet relevant social message, as Intermarché customers were, many will think twice.

“There are and always will be bargain shoppers out there,” Gunders said. “It’s all about marketing, right? Marketing got us into this corner where we’re wasting nearly half of our food, so marketing could get us back out of it.” She added that she’s been sent the Intermarché video by at least 15 different people since the English version first surfaced online, a sign that there is significant public interest in this kind of initiative.

Colorado resident Anna Bundick King, 41, who posted the “Inglorious” video on her Facebook feed, agrees that initiatives like this would find a receptive audience in the U.S. “Being a teacher, I would love to see this idea introduced in schools,” she wrote in an email. “It would be a fun way to teach responsible use of our resources.”

“If I were a U.S. retailer, I’d be jumping all over this,” said Gunders.

American supermarkets may be ready to listen. Lindsay Robinson, a spokesperson for Whole Foods, said the chain’s management had “seen the campaign and they love it.”

“We’re always looking for new ways to bring high quality, delicious produce to our customers,” she wrote in an email.

Omar Jorge Peña, a partner and general counsel at the small, independent East Coast supermarket chain Compare Foods, said his company was “aware of the ‘Inglorious’ fruits and vegetables concept” and would be “further studying its viability” in the company’s markets.

Ugly produce, yummy soups

To seal the deal, the masterminds behind Intermarché’s marketing initiative developed a line of soups and juices made exclusively with “ugly” fruits and vegetables — proof that a crooked carrot or lopsided orange can taste just as good, if not better, than her smooth, spotless neighbor.

And even that lumpy potato can be used to make gorgeous, sexy, golden-crisp French fries, n’est ce pas?

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.