Food waste. It’s one of the environmental issues de jour. As much as 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. is wasted – and ends up in landfills and incinerators where it contributes to greenhouse gases and climate change. Solving this problem should be easy, right? Help ensure that leftover food gets to people in need. Compost food scraps. Buy “ugly” fruit and vegetables – produce doesn’t meet our esthetic expectations. But, have you ever tried to buy “ugly” produce? It’s not that easy to find. Enter Imperfect Produce (www.imperfectproduce.com/).
Imperfect Produce (Imperfect) buys “ugly” produce – fruits and vegetables – and delivers them to your door. Unlike many Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, Imperfect Produce allows the customer to select what produce they receive. And, they deliver it to your doorstep. And, because the produce is “imperfect”, it costs substantially less than most CSA or even farmers market produce. Customers can select from four box size options and chose organic, mixed (organic and conventional), veggie only, and fruit only options. A customized option allows customers to see what produce is available that week and select exactly what produce they receive. A small (7-9lb organic) produce order costs $15-$17 per week while an extra-large (23-25lb) order costs between $39 to $43 per week.
So, who’s behind Imperfect Produce? Ben Simon founded the Food Recovery Network (FRN), a nonprofit dedicated to preventing food waste on college campuses while attending the University of Maryland. Ben Chesler came on board as FRN expanded (there are now more than 230 chapters operating on university campuses in 44 states and the District). Over time, the “Bens” realized they could make an even bigger impact on reducing food waste by sourcing ‘ugly’ and surplus produce directly from farms and delivering it to customers. They co-founded Imperfect Produce in 2015 in Emeryville, California. Since then, the company has expanded to 15 cities/metro areas nationwide. According to Reilly Brock, Imperfect Produce’s Content Manager, “We came to DC because once we launched operations in Baltimore, DC was a logical next step. And, our CEO is from Silver Spring, Maryland, so expanding to the DC area feels a lot like a homecoming for us”.
But, what’s “imperfect” about Imperfect Produce’s products – and why is it sold at a discount price? American consumers have been taught to expect produce to look a certain way. Fruits and vegetables that don’t match consumer expectations – in size, shape, or color –are often discarded and never even make it to the supermarket. Yet, this produce still has the name level of nutrition as any piece of produce. Imperfect Produce buys this discarded produce at a discounted price and passes that savings along to their customers.
Imperfect’s top priority is to reduce food waste. With a company philosophy of “following the waste while following the seasons” some produce provided to East Coast customers is sourced from outside the region, especially in the winter months. Imperfect works with local growers, and they try to reduce food delivery miles out of environmental and economic concerns. But Imperfect’s business model also focuses on transparency, so customers can always see where their produce was grown and why it’s “ugly” when you customize your box each week.
But, while reducing food waste is a company priority, Imperfect is also passionate about supporting farmers. Brock notes, “Many of our farmers are used to taking a 5-20 percent loss on of their crop because of how it looks. They end up selling these ‘uglies’ for pennies on the dollar to juicers, processors, or animal feed. We offer a better outcome for farmers where they’re able to make a fair living on every acre they plant – and help feed more people while generating less waste.
Imperfect is also committed to doing their part to eliminate “food deserts” – areas with limited access to a grocery store due to a combination of distance and economic factors. According to a 2017 DC Policy Publication, food deserts encompass some 11 percent of DC. In addition to a convenient and affordable delivery model, Imperfect also offers a reduced-cost box for anyone who qualifies for SNAP/food stamps – a price that is an additional 30 percent cheaper than their standard box. According to Brock, currently over 9,000 individuals enrolled in this program nationwide and they and hope this number will expand.
Interested in trying out some ugly produce in your home? Imperfect Produce launched their DC operations on February 11. You and your family can become food waste warriors today at www.imperfectproduce.com/.
Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, a writer, and blogger for the DC Recycler: www.DCRecycler.blogspot.com; Twitter: @DC_Recycler. She is also a Board Member and the Vice Chair of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club, however, perspectives expressed are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions of that organization.