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Fallen fruit and fresh thinking inspire produce project

Flagstaff Team

Golden harvest… Denise Jamieson from Bayswater stocks up on avocados and limes from Uglys, Justin Burke’s weekend stall in Clarence St.

When Covid-19 put Justin Burke’s travel business on the back burner, he cast about for worthwhile work.

The result was an initiative to onsell surplus neighbourhood fruit, vegetables and nuts, and return some of the profits to the donor or their chosen community group.

“It’s dealing with waste at the front end and healthy eating at the back,” says the Devonport resident.

Under the banner of Uglys Beautiful Produce, he trades from his front gate at weekends and hopes the concept will grow.

The idea came from walks when he saw a lot of perfectly good, if not perfectly formed, fallen fruit on the ground.

Burke says people have responded well to approaches to share surplus food, grown organically in backyards.

Shoppers have been keen to sample produce from old fruit trees and learn more about them. Some of it may not look picture perfect, but the taste is often better than modern varieties grown for size, colour and appearance, he says.

“I’ve had 10-year-old boys screw up their faces because, of course, it’s ugly. They don’t realise what fruit looks like.”

Apples in the 1960s used to come in 100 varieties, now typically around half a dozen were sold, said Burke. Most modern ones were sweet. “There’s so many types that have been bred out. Fruit and vegetables used to look and taste different and we’ve forgotten.”

Talking to customers, he encourages them to give the unfamiliar-looking a go – from peeling a baby banana to cutting open citrus samples – to show that while the outside may not be smooth and bright, the inside could be enticing.

Burke built Uglys by canvassing streets in Devonport, but as word has spread he is now getting calls from further afield. Mandarins have come from Belmont. “The tree was planted in 1954 – the year I was born,” he notes.

One man was happy to share his unwanted avocados and make $20 to give to his bowling club. Burke keeps 70 per cent of sales money and either returns 20 per cent to the donor or forwards the cut to their designated school, club, church or charity.

Waste not, want not… Justin Burke of Uglys Beautiful Produce is selling surplus neighbourhood fruit

Ten per cent of the produce he collects goes into the community-centre box opposite his Clarence St house or to charity groups. Customers sometimes leave with a little something extra, to clear seasonal surpluses. He also redistributes leftover fruit to different donors to spread the goodwill.

“I’m building the concept – it’s not a business yet,” says Burke, after four weekends of selling.

Sometimes customers are tempted to buy extras such as jars of jam or marmalade his wife Kathy has made.

Kathy, a nurse, and their daughter Genevieve, a university graduate, who looks after social media for the project, are his biggest supporters, helping out on the stall at weekends.

“It’s great,” says Kathy, who likes the healthy-eating aspect and seeing heritage trees treasured. “I’m very into all the recycling as well.”

A nod to social enterprise wasn’t part of Burke’s initial plan when his Albany-based specialist Visas and Passports business went into hibernation.

But working with fresh food and partly outdoors, had always appealed. He visited a number of markets to scope out what was being done well, before deciding on diverting what the community already produced. “It connects people who have stuff that can share it, with people who don’t.” Volunteers who liked this notion had since approached, offering to help.

Burke is thinking of taking a stand at Takapuna Market on Sundays to lift sales, but ultimately he would like to see hyper-local shopping grow. “The vision would be that we would have a weekly produce market here in Devonport.”

• Uglys is at 25 Clarence St, Devonport, on Saturdays and Sundays from 9am to noon. To contact Justin Burke, phone 021 482491 or email uglysproduce@gmail.com

This article originally appeared in the 23 October 2020 edition of the Flagstaff. Read online here.

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