When it comes to produce, most buyers expect perfection—any little bruise or discoloration can make the difference between what's bought and what's tossed. Grocery stores know this, so they buy only blemish-free produce from farmers who are then left with millions of unsellable pounds of perfectly delicious food. John Oliver has warned us about food waste and the Freegans are trying to reclaim the waste (straight from the dumpster), but there's another solution: Imperfect Produce, a CSA-style program that delivers 'ugly' produce to you.
Founder Ben Simon came up with Imperfect Produce when he was a student at the University of Maryland. He noticed how much food went to waste in the school cafeteria, so he started the Food Recovery Network (FRN), a nonprofit dedicated to preventing waste on college campuses. FRN has expanded to over 180 colleges and universities around the country, and through FRN, Simon met Ben Chelser. Together, the two Bens launched Imperfect Produce in 2015, looking to make an even bigger impact on the nation's food waste by going directly to farms and recovering the ugliest produce. They started in the Bay Area, then moved into L.A. Now they are in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and Indianapolis, with aspirations to eventually reach the East Coast. Between the six cities, "we recover over half a million pounds of produce per week," said Reilly Brock, content manager for Imperfect Produce.
America is synonymous with an abundance of food but is also an abundant producer of food waste. The USDA estimates that 30-40% of the U.S. food supply is wasted, which equals about 133 billion pounds or 161 billion dollars. When it ends up in landfills, the decomposing produce creates excess amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.
A large part of why so much food is wasted is cosmetic. Farmers struggle to sell produce that isn’t picture-perfect, even though it is only natural that crops grow in irregular shapes and sizes. It's often expensive for farms to find and transport this food to donation centers, so they end up going with the cheapest and easiest option: throwing it out. Imperfect Produce steps in to purchase directly from farms, both conventional and organic, the produce they would throw out, vetting for quality before sending it to consumers.
And really, 'ugly' is a bit pejorative for what is really just an oddly-shaped, surplus, or naturally discolored product. "The biggest misconception is that the product is old or moldy" says Brock. This misconception is the biggest barrier for prospective customers as it has become natural for us to evaluate our produce on aesthetic grounds. This habit is most likely a result of post-World War food technology that lined grocery aisles with factory-perfect food, like Wonder Bread, and increased food regulation in that era, according to The Atlantic. "But the most common feedback from customers is 'this is not too ugly,'" says Brock.
Ready to embrace the ugly ducklings of the farm? Imperfect gives you a few options. Unlike a typical CSA, where you get what you get and can’t throw a fit, Imperfect lets you choose from a variety of sourced produce for the week, from snackable fruits like apples to hardy pantry staples like onions and potatoes. Produce is sourced as locally as possible, but “we follow the waste,” Brock explains, so it may come from California-based sources even if you live in Seattle. Imperfect's focus is on seasonal items, so “we’re not shipping in papayas year round” says Brock. Whatever produce is offered comes at prices 30-50% less than you'll find at grocery stores.
Food waste also happens at home, often from over-purchasing and letting things go bad before we have a chance to use them up. To counter this, Imperfect Produce offers small, medium, or large boxes with sizing guides based on household size and cooking frequency. They also have a blog that provides tips for limiting waste and how to cook with the produce they offer.
Shipping the produce, sometimes from long distances, is not the most eco-friendly system, but Imperfect Produce limits drop-off days, creating delivery clusters of shipments to the same area instead of scattering them over various days and trips. “We’re not on-demand like Amazon. You can’t get anything you want at any time,” says Brock.
Boxes are both recyclable and compostable, and even though Imperfect Produce can’t reuse them because of food safety regulations, they encourage reuse at home. “We have seen our boxes turn into cat boxes and kids’ forts,” Brock points out.
Imperfect Produce also encourages people to cook with ingredients they may not be used to, like celery root or parsnips. They're not eligible for EBT or SNAP because of the programs’ restrictions on online food purchases, but the company works around it, offering an additional 30% price reduction for people on those programs. This is all a part of their mission to reduce food waste while making fresh produce more accessible across the country.