Ugly Veggies Unite: How One Startup is Changing the Produce Industry
Aestietically Unpleasant Produce Is Good for You and the planet
If you’ve never thought about how cosmetically appealing your fruit and vegetables are when you walk into a supermarket, you aren’t alone. Someone does though, and by the time produce reaches supermarket shelves, it has been scrupulously reviewed by a farmer, distributor and market for its aesthetic quality.
Cosmetic differences like irregular shape, abnormal color or healed scars don’t affect the safety of a product, according to Marita Cantwell, post-harvest specialist with the University of California, Davis. But these cosmetic irregularities are often the focus of U.S. grading standards. The stringent standards they are required to meet may mean wastefulness starting as early as the farmer’s fields.
In an effort to save money and the life of the produce itself, an Emeryville-based startup is looking to send customers the rejected produce. Imperfect Produce takes what would normally be discarded straight from the fields or from the supermarkets and makes it available to pick up or receive on your doorstep in boxes of fruit, vegetables or both. The produce is advertised as “of the same taste and health” but for a cheaper cost.
The founders of Imperfect Produce, Ben Simon and Ben Chesler became interested in food preservation when they noticed the food waste from their college cafeteria. They started the Food Recovery Network, which now works with over 160 universities to conserve cafeteria food by partnering with local food organizations to redistribute uneaten food from cafeterias all over the country.
The real food waste problem however, argues Jonathan Bloom author of “American Wasteland”, exists in grocery stores where “retailers say they won’t sell [imperfect produce] because people don’t buy it, and people say they want to buy it but retailers won’t sell it.” The notion that food has to be symmetrical and uniform is just a fallacy, says Bloom, and a lifestyle change is essential if we don’t want to waste produce in the future.
A study from the University of Arizona says that about 40% of food in the United States goes uneaten. This is partially due to produce being left in the fields, partial dinners discarded in restaurants and in households, where estimates say that around 14-25% of food is thrown out each year, costing families and the environment.
Imperfect Produce aims to remedy the problem of an unequal distribution of produce and prohibitive cost for some consumers. While produce is the most discarded food by far because of its short lifespan, low cost and easy accessibility, an estimated 23.5 million Americans live in a USDA defined “food desert”, and have limited or no access to fresh food and produce. Those who live in food deserts are statistically more likely to be low-income, of color, and prone to chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.
A Food Empowerment Project report shows that “the problem is how the US government’s North American Industry Classification System categorizes retail outlets that sell food.” According to the NAICS code, small corner grocery stores are statistically lumped together with larger supermarkets, such as Safeway, Whole Foods Market, etc. A community with no supermarket and two corner grocery stores that offer liquor and food would be counted as having two retail food outlets, even though the food offered may be extremely limited and consist mainly of junk food and very little produce.
Ron Clark, the chief supply officer for Imperfect Produce is trying to remedy the food desert problem by contacting Oakland-based farmers who give him produce that they know wouldn’t make it onto supermarket shelves. The service currently delivers to home and office addresses in Oakland, Berkeley, Albany, Alameda and Emeryville. There are pick-up points in San Francisco, Lafayette and Concord. For a full list of delivery zip codes, sign up for their mailing list here.