Recently, the amount of food wasted each year throughout the world—and especially in America—has become an increasingly talked about topic. It is for good reason too, because some of the food waste statistics are quite astonishing. For instance, according to a report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American wastes around 400 pounds of food per year. It is an incredible statistic to think about considering how many individuals throughout America and abroad go hungry each day. Something possibly even more astonishing than this is the fact that a great deal of wasted food is fresh produce that never even reaches a consumer. But why is that? Why are hundreds of millions of pounds of nutritious, delicious, and perfectly edible fruits and vegetables being sent to landfills rather than dinner plates? Well, it is simply because this produce falls under the category of “ugly” produce.
What is ugly produce anyway? How does one even decide that one fruit is ugly and not fit for purchase but another beautiful and perfectly acceptable for purchase? One only needs to walk down the veggies and fruits section at a local supermarket, and they will find a surfeit of examples of “beautiful” produce−but certainly not ugly produce. For example, the beautiful produce is the perfectly shaped and colored apples, potatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, and the list could go on and on as we stroll through the aisle. But what we don’t see are apples and berries with strange colorations, or tomatoes with awkward curves, or potatoes with strange protrusions in them, and this is simply because most consumers don’t want produce that doesn’t look the way they have predestined or come to expect it to look. The fact is that most produce with an irregular or misshapen appearance is tossed away solely because it is not profitable for supermarkets to buy this produce from farmers, since most customers would likely pass it over for their more conventional looking counterparts. It has nothing to do with their nutritional quality, and this unfortunate scenario creates an enormous amount of what seems like the worst and saddest kind of food waste that I can think of. However, there are plenty of individuals who feel that this is unacceptable. Most importantly, there are many consumers who are willing to buy ugly produce if given the opportunity, and one Bay Area startup called Imperfect has created a unique avenue for people to do so.
Imperfect was founded in 2015 by two entrepreneurs, Ben Simon and Ben Chesler, who were then joined by Aleks Strub in 2016, to round out Imperfect’s founding leadership trio. The idea of their startup was simple—help save what they lovingly like to call “cosmetically challenged” produce from winding up in landfills. At Imperfect, they work with farmers to buy the undesirable produce they would otherwise have to discard. This provides unexpected and welcome revenue for the farmers, and Imperfect can purchase this produce at a discounted price since it would have otherwise been thrown away. In turn, Imperfect passes these savings directly on to their customers by offering prices that are on average 30-50% cheaper than store prices. The produce available is seasonal, so what they offer can change from time to time, but the consumer can customize the type and amount of produce that they want delivered to their house each week. Additionally, in order to reduce their own ecological footprint, Imperfect delivers to all of their customers’ houses that fall in the same neighborhood on the same day. This business method really is a win-win scenario for the environment, the entrepreneurs, the farmers, the customers, and (of course) the ugly or cosmetically challenged produce that finds itself on a dinner plate satisfying a hungry stomach as opposed to rotting in a landfill. It is straightforward, effective, and efficient, but often times innovative thinking and business is quite simple. This startup has created an excellent template to help combat food waste, and hopefully others will draw on it to keep the momentum they created going.
We all get caught up in our habits and patterns and what we are used to and what we are not. No one is immune to this, but at the same time, no one is immune from having their opinion or mindset change. If we can make ugly fruit become normal and cool and acceptable and common in the average market throughout America, then we can go a long way to reducing a tremendous amount of food waste and maybe even helping to change the average person’s overall attitude toward the environment. Sometimes to convince people, all you need is a clever and compelling example, and Imperfect’s falls right in that niche. They really are helping to turn the ugly into the beautiful—one customer at a time.
What can you do in your area to help promote the sale and consumption of ugly produce, whether at a farmers’ market or a supermarket?
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