A third of the earth’s food is thrown away, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. That number is higher in the United States—up to 40 percent of our food winds up rotting in landfills—and higher still for produce: a full 52 percent of North America and Oceania’s fruits and vegetables are tossed not into salads, but garbage cans.
And a huge percentage gets wasted only because it doesn’t meet supermarkets’ aesthetic standards. Tomatoes have to be perfectly red and round; carrots, orange and straight. That puts a lot of fruits and vegetables in a no-man’s land—un-bruised and unspoiled but not quite perfect enough to sell on a shelf. Consumers, the thinking goes, will always err on the side of congruity, picking the perfect over the misshapen.
But the guys at Imperfect in Emeryville, California, want to change that. By offering boxes of cosmetically challenged fruit and vegetables for 30 to 50 percent less than what you’d pay at the grocery store, they hope to change the way we buy our produce, and the way we see it, too.
Cofounder Ben Simon got his start in the food-waste movement as a senior at the University of Maryland, when he founded the Food Recovery Network. The FRN redirected food from on-campus sources like dining halls and sports stadiums to homeless shelters in the area. It has since spread to 162 chapters (most of which are colleges) and donated over a million pounds of food to those in need.
After graduation, Simon teamed up with Ben Chesler, who established FRN’s second chapter, at Brown, to tackle systemic food-waste on a bigger scale. Their advisors, like the food-waste activist Jonathan Bloom, all pointed to farms as the beginning of the food-waste problem.
In 2015, with the help of Imperfect’s third cofounder, Ron Clark, who spent the better part of ten years building one of the nation’s leading produce-recovery programs, they founded Imperfect. I sat down with the Bens to get the story behind the business.
What was the process of setting up the network out here?
Ben Simon: It was crazy. Ben C. and I arrived on the Fourth of July and planned to launch one month later. We were fortunate to have Ron. His last project focused on selling rejected produce to food banks, so he had great contacts. Most of his old suppliers were happy to work with us. We were all doing a bit of everything. Ben C. and I would go from meeting with investors one moment to getting keys made in a hardware store the next.
I wasn’t sure it we could pull it off. But when we got our first shipment of ugly produce in and I knew we had people who would want it, I knew we were onto something. The most gratifying part is meeting our customers.
BS: The massive concentration of produce here is a major factor, and the weather. Californians are really receptive to our concept. It helps that there’s a food culture; people care about where their food is coming from. They want to be able to vote with how they’re buying or what they’re putting in their bodies.
What have been Imperfect’s biggest challenges so far?
BS: Sourcing organic produce in the Bay Area. One out of every three people we talk to asks about it, but the majority of the farms we worked with are conventional, so we haven’t been able to offer it. That’s changing soon. We’ve been in contact with a bunch of organic farms, and in January we’re rolling out a completely organic mixed box.
People also want choice. We do an exit survey whenever we lose a customer, and 60 percent of people who discontinued their orders said choosing what went into their boxes was important to them. We thought that the way to democratize a CSA, to make it accessible to everyone, was to offer really low prices. But we found that people get fatigued after receiving the same item over the course of a season.
What about donations? Is any ugly produce being given away?
Ben Chesler: Five to ten percent of the stuff we get from farms is suitable for human consumption, but is a little more than ugly—it’s too soft or too bruised for us to give to our customers. We donate that produce to the Alameda Food Bank and Food Shift. We also donate to Sprouts Cooking Club, which offers cooking classes for kids across the income spectrum. But most of the time our stuff is cheap enough that nonprofits will actually just buy it.
For lower-income families, we offer our box for eight dollars instead of twelve. (And that amount of produce would cost twenty dollars in a grocery store.) It’s done on a self-identifying basis; close to a hundred or so customers have used that option.
Elsewhere, Imperfect’s been tied to a so-called ugly produce movement. What exactly does that mean?
BS: We always say that it’s what’s on the inside that counts when it comes to produce. The ugly produce movement is about consumers coming together around that idea and embracing it however they can, whether it’s shopping at a company like Imperfect or promoting ugly produce on social media or asking their local grocery store if they’ll stock it. From a business perspective, we’d love to see big grocery stores going through us, but if they don’t, it would still be an amazing step forward.
We could never claim to be the full solution to America’s food-waste issue. There are too many components to it to have one solution. We’re helping to solve the issue on farms, standing up for the produce underdog, and showing the true beauty of ugly produce. When it all comes together, it’s exciting. That’s the difference that we’re making.