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Pretty produce: Lumen Scholar explores how a shift in consumer attitudes can impact food waste

Sara Machi ’18 is among the recipients of the Lumen Prize, which provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship and celebrates their academic and creative accomplishments.   

Lumen Scholar Sara Machi with mentor Alisha Horky, assistant professor of marketing

You may say “to-mah-to” and I may say “to-may-to,” but chances are when we head to the grocery store, we’re both looking for the prettiest, reddest and most perfect tomato we can find.

But what about those that aren’t quite as pretty or aren’t quite as red? Those that are downright ugly vegetables? Is there a market on in this country’s produce sections?

Those are the questions Lumen Scholar Sara Machi ’18 set out to answer with research that explores the differences in how imperfect produce is marketed in France versus the United States. Her extensive research into the subject has helped fuel the marketing major’s passion for reducing food waste and has produced critical insights into consumer perceptions that will assist growers and grocers alike.

“Promotion is a big part of marketing, but I am really interested in the consumer psychology of it,” Machi says.

As a recipient of Elon’s Lumen Prize, Machi received a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate her academic endeavors. Since her junior year, Machi has been pursuing her research project in close collaboration with mentor Alisha Horky, assistant professor of marketing in the Love School of Business, and she looks forward to publishing her findings in the future.

It was an experience in a French class that would spark Machi’s initial interest in exploring how imperfect produce is marketed. During that class, Machi says she watched a video that referenced a program at the French grocery chain Intermarché which developed the practice of selling fruits and vegetables that don’t meet typical aesthetic criteria and selling them at a reduced price. “French shoppers were interested in it and bought into it,” Machi said.

Machi wondered if similar programs might be feasible in the U.S., with the idea that imperfect produce could be sold at a lower price point and provide a source of healthier food choices of lower-income shoppers while also reducing the amount of food that’s unnecessarily wasted. She found that there had been little study of the issue.

“There is actually very little research on purchasing weird-looking fruits and vegetables, and how people’s perceptions can affect that,” Machi says.

As a first-year student, Machi had begun working with Horky, and had assisted her in her research into how consumers behave in grocery stores, a topic that dovetails with Machi’s interest in imperfect produce marketing. “Sara’s research topic is such a wonderful illustration of how business topics can overlap with public policy and the goals of nonprofits,” Horky says. “I think every day that she gets more information about the topic, she gets even more passionate about it.”

Selected for the Lumen Prize, Machi studied in Paris in Spring 2017 and began collecting data through in-person interviews with shoppers at a supermarket in Provinś. It initially an intimidating process — an American walking up to random French grocery shoppers to ask about what they look for in fruits and vegetables — but Machi said she quickly felt at ease, and those she talked to were generous with their time.

“I was pretty terrified at first, but everyone was so nice about it,” Machi says. “They didn’t judge me if I said something wrong.”

Machi supplemented her in-person interviews with online surveys of more than 70 French consumers to gauge their interest in imperfect produce. Back in the United States, Machi conducted in-person interviews with people at farmer’s markets, and again supplemented those qualitative insights with surveys of more than 100 American consumers who purchase imperfect produce.

Additionally, Machi is conducting a more quantitative survey that so far has more than 500 respondents that explore the different factors that influence a person’s willingness to purchase aesthetically imperfect fruits and vegetables. “She has hit just about every method of data collection we can do in the social sciences,” Horky says.

Within this data, Machi has been working to identify the balance between appearance and price in how consumers make their decisions about buying fresh produce. Additionally, she gauges their knowledge of the issue of food waste and preferences for natural or local food, as well as how feelings of “achievement or rescue” might impact their shopping decisions.

She found that among American shoppers, there is a much stronger link between what a vegetable looks like and how they perceive its freshness or how it will taste. “The French were much more likely to separate the two — appearance and quality or taste.”

French shoppers were more concerned with the source of their fruits and vegetables than their American counterparts, but were less concerned that chemicals could be what accounts for the differences in fruit or vegetable shape. Machi also found that French shoppers expressed concerns about the complications that could come with preparing an irregularly shaped fruit or vegetable.

Machi also discovered the role that education can play in the attitudes shoppers have. The more they know about food waste, such as the fact that 40 percent of food grown in this country is wasted, the more likely they are to consider purchasing produce that doesn’t look perfect but is just as healthy and just as tasty. In particular, French consumers were more knowledgeable about food waste, and were more likely to cite it as a motivation for purchasing irregular fruits and vegetables.

Machi’s academic interest is rooted in her personal drive to help address hunger and food insecurity in the community. She notes that Burlington and Alamance County have among the highest levels of food insecurity in the country, something she’s become acutely aware of working with the food pantry for Allied Churches of Alamance County.

“Knowing I am surrounded by people who don’t have access to food has strengthened my drive to decrease food waste,” Machi says. “If we can just decrease the amount of food waste by just a little bit, if we can be a little more lenient with the aesthetic criteria, that would really make a great impact.”

In December 2017, Machi presented her research at the annual Society for Marketing Advances conference in Louisville, Kentucky, and was one of the few undergraduate students presenting. “She was very impressive and everyone was floored by the quality of her work,” Horky says. “She’s very confident in what she knows.”

The Lumen Prize has provided Machi and other Lumen Scholars “a chance to really sit down and focus on one thing they are truly passionate about,” Horky says. “It really gives these students a chance to immerse themselves in a topic and become experts.”

Following graduations, Machi will begin working as the food hub coordinator for Grow Ohio Valley in Wheeling, West Virginia, through the AmeriCorps program. The nonprofit seeks to provide the surrounding community with fresh and local food while also teaching them to grow their own. Machi will be assisting with the supply chain to ensure fruits and vegetables from the farming network make it to households in need.

“I think my research and my experience has really changed what I want to do with my life,” Machi says. “I have found that it has broadened my worldview. Now I’m going to be getting involved in something that’s directly related to what I’ve been researching.”

Owen Covington,
4/13/2018 3:00 PM