Imperfect Produce Focuses on Reducing Food Waste
How 'bout them (tiny, lopsided) apples?
One in five: That's the number of fruits and vegetables in the U.S. that grocery stores won't buy because they're "ugly." Ben Simon and Ben Chesler saw the billions of pounds of ugly produce that went to waste every year – produce that never even makes it off the farm – and decided to do something about it. In 2015, Imperfect Produce was born in San Francisco, and the produce delivery service just landed in Austin last month.
It's a company that takes food waste seriously, but not much else. Their Instagram feed is proof of that: Misshapen tomatoes in tiny straw hats, bulbous sweet potatoes in tutus, lopsided peppers adorned with googly eyes and creases that make the vegetable look like it sucked on a lemon. In between bright images of comically anthropomorphized produce are artfully arranged recipes that utilize the strangest-looking veggies, and cooking definitions. (Broil: Verb. To burn with style.) What the images ultimately convey is that "imperfect" produce isn't actually funny – it's proof that it's the food system in America that's broken, not the produce.
Most of the flaws on the rejected produce are exceedingly minor: apples slightly smaller than normal, lopsided peppers that don't quite stand up on their own, or carrots with minor surface scarring. "A lot of what counts as ugly is something the average person wouldn't even notice," says Reilly Brock, content manager for the marketing team at Imperfect Produce.
Size is the biggest reason grocery stores turn down produce. "Stores are really picky about what fits into display cases," Brock says. "[Symmetry] is great for selling apples in pyramid displays, but not so great for the farmer or for the consumer."
Perhaps the most distressing reason produce goes to waste is that a farmer grew too much of, say, broccoli, and it would be cheaper to leave it in the field to rot than to go through alternative channels and third parties to find someone beside their regular buyer to process it. And it's not just the broccoli that's going to waste or ending up in animal feed – it's all the water, labor, land, and fertilizer that was used, from planting to harvesting, that gets wasted, too. "There's no reason that stuff should be going to waste," Brock says.
That's where Imperfect Produce comes in. They source fruits and vegetables directly from farmers, rescuing the stuff that never makes it to grocery stores so it can be shipped off to subscribers for up to 30% less than what they might pay for the same items (albeit slightly more uniform in appearance) at their local H-E-B. If the company ends up with more than it needs, they donate it to a food bank. In Austin, they've partnered with the Central Texas Food Bank, and in San Francisco, they host a free farmers market where anyone who needs it can score free produce.
"Produce should go to feeding people," Brock says. "We're trying to bring an end to food waste. Our goal is to find a home for the billions of pounds of produce that go to waste on farms every year and help everyone eat a little better along the way."
If you sign up for a subscription on ImperfectProduce.com, you can select a weekly or biweekly delivery (always on the same day), with the option to cancel or postpone whenever you want. And customizing the box is allowed! If you don't like kale but want to make squash soup this week, just remove the kale from your digital box and add in some squash. Easy as pie. (Which you could totally make if you just fill your box with apples instead of a variety of vegetables.) Just select "organic," "conventional," "all fruits," or "all vegetables," and be part of Imperfect Produce's recovery of 35 million pounds of wasted food.