For those of us who are or have indulged in gardening, misshapen fruits and vegetables can be one of the joys of spending your spring and summer in the yard while growing your own food. But as a society, something gets lost in translation when we go to the local supermarket or warehouse store: We expect our fruits and vegetables to be uniform in color, size and texture. Even Whole Foods, which purports to be the “sustainable” and “community” grocery store across the U.S., offers no produce lacking a uniform appearance, unless you count the heirloom tomatoes sold at $7 a pound.
To that end, the Oakland, California, startup Imperfect Foods is trying to change attitudes toward funny-looking fruits and vegetables while increasing waste diversion.
Efforts like those of Imperfect Foods are important because food waste is an ongoing problem in the United States and most countries across the world. Even with a celebrity such as Jamie Oliver leading a “crooked carrots” campaign, changing minds has been a tough sell. The nonprofit Feeding America estimates that, of the 70 billion pounds (31.8 billion kilos) of good, safe food that is wasted across the U.S., 6 billion pounds are fresh fruits and vegetables.
Granted, the aforementioned charity had success in diverting almost 1 billion pounds of that produce last year, but there is plenty of room for improvement. Imperfect Foods is taking a compelling, though risky, approach toward tackling the beautification of ugly produce: The company aims to launch a delivery service that will send 10 to 15 pounds of these misshapen fruits and vegetables to future customers on a weekly basis.
Think of Imperfect Foods as the doppelgänger to your neighborhood community CSA (community supported agriculture). What is now a company of three people says it will start the service this summer in Berkeley and Oakland. The company says it will work with farmers across California to source these foods and then sell them to future customers at about a 30 percent discount compared to supermarket prices.
Imperfect Foods already surpassed its goal of raising $35,000 in a crowdfunding campaign that expired over the weekend. Those funds will go toward leasing a refrigerated warehouse to store the produce and pay for the salaries of sales and delivery teams.
The current team behind Imperfect Foods has a solid track record. Ben Simon and Ben Chesler started the Food Recovery Network in 2011, which diverts 700,000 pounds of food from college campuses that would otherwise have ended up in landfills. Ron Clark has worked with California food banks for 15 years and is experienced in sourcing misshapen produce. They will face challenges: reliable sources of this misshapen fruit; bias amongst consumers who hold on to the fallacy that “organic” is healthier than “conventional”; and of course those ingrained beliefs that funny-looking fruits and veggies are not as good as their perfectly-shaped cousins.
Nevertheless, Imperfect Foods could be the start of changing hearts and minds. The amount of food waste across the world is absurd, especially considering the ongoing drought in California. Some supermarket chains in Canada, the United Kingdom and France launched campaigns highlighting the virtues of ugly fruits and vegetables, but overall retailers have far more to do to educate their customers. This startup could be onto something, and may start changing attitudes we have toward the fruit and vegetables food group at a grassroots level.
Image credit: Jason Ruck
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.