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Is 'Ugly Produce' The Key To Our Food Waste Problem?

Farmers are embracing imperfect produce that is turned away from supermarkets to combat the global problem of food waste.

Juan Gonzalez works in the heart of California farm country where about 90 percent of America's cauliflower is harvested every year.

Until recently, he said his farms were also the site of a staggering amount of food waste: 10 million pounds per year.

That's because so many fruits and vegetables never make it to store shelves simply because they look a little different.

If the cauliflower is a little too yellow on the top, grocery stores won't take it.

If the cauliflower is a little too yellow on the top, grocery stores won't take it. Image: CBS News

"Everybody knows cauliflower as being white. But in order to keep organic cauliflower white you've got to come in, break the leaves or tie the leaves," Gonzalez explained to CBS News' Kenneth Craigh.

"(To) keep the sun from hitting this head of cauliflower."

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines separate fruits and vegetables into grades based on things like size and colour.

Large volume retailers, including supermarkets, often follow those strict beauty standards. That has led to 10 million tons of cosmetically imperfect or unharvested food being lost each year.

But one man's trash has become another man's treasure for Ben Chesler, who saw "imperfect produce" as the perfect recipe and name for a new business model.

READ MORE: Why Some Farmers Are Going Bananas Over Food Waste

"The goal was really to fix a part of the food system," Chesler said.

"Starting with produce and then eventually moving into the wider food system, we could solve the environmental impact of all the food going to waste, we could make food more affordable for people and we could start to take a small bite out of this whole problem of food deserts where we could actually deliver healthy produce to people for more affordable than the grocery store."

The guidelines means carrots like these won't be accepted by some grocery stores. Image: CBS News

Chesler's company is an offshoot of the Food Recovery Network, a student-led movement he started with a friend in college.

"We noticed there was a huge amount of food going to waste in our dining halls from these giant buffets and at the same time there was hunger in the community," he said.

"So we started a student organisation to take that food from the dining halls and donate it to homeless shelters, meals sites in the community. It turned into actually the largest student movement against hunger."

In four years, the doorstep delivery service has expanded to more than 30 markets and more than 200,000 customers, including Caroline Devane's home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"In my experience, the food has been just as good as grocery store quality. When I look for the imperfections I'm like, 'Is it really imperfect?' It seems just fine and it's a great price," Devane said.

The mother-of-two said it's not only saving her money, but also trips to the store.

"It's nice to think that there's a very small, consumer impact I can make just by choosing these vegetables, instead of choosing the very beautiful vegetables at the grocery store," Devane said.

READ MORE: Stockbroker Turned 'Robin Hood' Of Food Feeding Australia's Hungry

The ugly produce movement has grown into a competitive field with companies like Misfits Market and Hungry Harvest all fighting for a share.

It's also ignited a debate, with skeptics pointing out that more than 80 percent of food waste each year comes from consumers at homes, businesses and restaurants.

"There's no silver bullet to any of these problems like food waste," Chesler said.

"Six billion pounds of food never make it to a human mouth -- that's in any form. That's after the food banks have taken produce. That's after the salsas, the juices and the jams."

Food waste is a growing problem in Australia. Image: 10 daily.

On thousands of acres at Lakeside Organic Gardens, where Juan Gonzalez's team grows than 50 different vegetable varieties, the rescue efforts have been a game changer.

"Profitability has gone up," he said.

"Our employee's production numbers have gone up. The field's harvest numbers have gone up. Everything has gone up.

"If we could turn all that around, California could pretty much end world hunger … that's how much product gets left behind."