This week on All the Swirl, intern Jules Lydon interviews the Bay's very own Imperfect Produce as part of CCA's series on sustainable businesses. Imperfect Produce is a delivery service that marries technology and sustainability in an effort to increase access to fresh fruit and vegetables, and reduce food waste by tapping into the immense (but 'ugly') bounty of flawed foodstuff.
It seems ridiculous to expect every person to look the same, so why should we hold produce to that standard? Like all living things, produce varies in shapes and sizes, yet 1.6 billion tons of produce are rejected each year due to cosmetic standards in the United States alone. Of course, most of these ugly ducklings taste the same as their aesthetically pleasing counterparts, yet they never reach store shelves. Instead, they are fed to livestock, plowed back into the fields, or worst of all thrown into dumpsters and landfills.
The United States has a serious case of produce prejudice.
In the past few years, food waste has gotten progressively worse, increasing from about 30% of the available food supply in 1974 to almost 40% in recent years, according to the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive, and Kidney Diseases. Despite this colossal amount of waste, there are 48.8 million Americans considered food insecure and 800 million people globally that suffer from hunger. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the world wastes enough food (2.9 trillion pounds to be exact) to feed each one of those people twice over. Ironically, we grow enough food to solve the global hunger crisis but our standards of beauty have delegated almost half of this food to the dumpster.
Imperfect Produce lays these ugly facts on the table for us all to face up to. Imperfect started when Ben Simon, Ben Chesler, and Ron Clark met through their work with nonprofit organizations. Upon learning that 20% of all produce in the US (that’s 6 billion pounds) is tossed per year due to visual ‘defects’ these three friends decided to take action. They shared a vision of a food system that would capitalize on our produce snobbery to provide people with discounted, delicious, and ‘disfigured’ fruit and veggies.
To test their vision, they decided to survey the general public and ask if they would pay 30-50% less for fresh and delicious but ‘ugly’ produce. The results were a resounding yes. With this encouragement, they set up shop in Emeryville, California in a warehouse to serve the greater Bay Area the ‘uglies.’
One year later, Imperfect Produce allows customers to choose a curated box featuring a wide range of produce, both conventional and organic, and delivers the box of your choosing directly to your door. All produce arrives at your home just a few days after being plucked from the fields and trees (that’s far fresher than your average grocery store, where those ‘perfect peaches’ may spend weeks in a semi truck before reaching their destination).
Since the company is small and its offices are adjacent to the warehouse, Imperfect team members get hands-on experience packing boxes and develop a deeper respect for this misshapen produce.
It’s easy to take the scare tactic route when discussing food waste and hunger issues. However, Imperfect follows a light-hearted, comedic and comfortable approach before teaching the public about the more serious aspects of the issue. Their Instagram feed is filled with pictures of obscure looking, googly-eyed fruits and vegetables that express personalities as diverse as our own.
I was fortunate enough to spend a day with Evan, one of Imperfect’s outreach team members who works to build community partnerships, gives tours, and educate the public about their project. Though the company is for-profit, Imperfect works extensively with non-profits and provides an assortment of educational activities to raise awareness about food waste in creative ways because the team sees community as an integral part of sustainability. As Evan stressed, “I don’t think that we can truly call something sustainable unless it’s also serving a human need.”
As evidence of this philosophy, Imperfect donates the food they can’t sell to nonprofits such as Foodship, which connects homeless shelters to restaurants willing to donate excess food, as well as others like the Alameda County Food Bank, Phat Beets in Oakland, and The Alameda Kitchen, a project of Food Shift. All are inspiring organizations that reinvent food waste to benefit their local communities. They also work with Sprouts Cooking club, a group of Bay Area chefs and gastronomes which teaches kids the importance of nutrition through hands-on cooking classes.
Although sustainability is often conflated with socioeconomic privilege, Imperfect is actively working to make eating sustainably feasible for both low and high-income populations. Thanks to Imperfect, the people of the Bay have an opportunity to aid the food waste crisis in a smart and easy way, while also eating healthily and sustainably, all at a reasonable cost. One meal at a time, Imperfect is working to convince people that all produce created equal.
Time to #eattheugly!
All the Swirl is a collections of thoughts and opinions assembled by the staff and industry friends of Charles Communications Associates, a marketing communications firm with its headquarters in San Francisco, California. We invite you to explore more about our company and clients by visiting www.charlescomm.com.