In San Francisco you may think you're doing your part to reduce food waste in landfills by dutifully composting all your dinner scraps and maybe some of you have even learned how to make pesto out of your carrot tops, and other clever "whole vegetable" stuff like that. But one of the biggest sources of food waste in the country, as has been discussed a lot recently (including on a recent John Oliver), is Americans' rejection of misshapen and/or unpretty fruits and vegetables. Such "ugly" or "cosmetically challenged" produce accounts for 20 percent of the produce grown in this country, according to Emeryville-based startup Imperfect Produce, some of it never even leaving the field in which it's grown because farmers aren't able to sell it. This is, of course, outrageous given the epidemic of hunger in this country and elsewhere, and starting with a few hundred 20-pound CSA boxes a week, Imperfect Produce is trying to address this problem.
As the company's chief operating officer Ben Chesler tells the New York Times, food waste also accounts for the largest percent of solids that end up in landfills, and when it rots it produces methane gas that is harmful to the environment.
But more than that, increasing the demand, and therefore the market, for imperfect fruits and vegetables will simply mean a glut of riches for our nation's healthy food supply but it will require getting more people on board with eating asymmetrical, mutant-looking peppers and Siamese-twin carrots. The bonus here is that because this food would have been going to waste, it can cost 40 percent less than more visually perfect produce.
Right now, Chesler says, Imperfect Produce has signed on 500 Bay Area customers in its first five weeks, each of whom is receiving a 17- to 20-pound box of fruits and vegetables each week for $18, and/or a 10- to 15-pound box of fruit for $12. "On a weekly basis, we go through about 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of produce right now," says Chesler. "And hopefully by the end of the year we'll be going through 30,000 to 40,000 on a weekly basis." The exposure in the NYT will likely help with that, but the company's delivery area is currently just Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, Albany, Alameda, Concord/Walnut Creek, Lafayette, and SF.
And, says supply officer Ron Clark, they're relying a lot on word of mouth right now, because, "Once one person is convinced, it doesn’t take much to get them to convert others."
Also, what's not to like? Some of the produce you end up with is simply the wrong size to be sold in a perfect display at Whole Foods, like oversized lemons and dwarfed apples.
Still, because of consumer preferences, Imperfect Produce is still having trouble breaking into the traditional supermarket realm. A deal with Raley's Supermarkets to sell some of Imperfect's peppers, pears, and apples already fell through this year after just a few months, presumably because consumers weren't buying them despite deep discounts.