Meet the Startup That’s Fighting Climate Change and Playing With Their Food.
Known for its fun online presence and social media feeds filled with anthropomorphized, so-called “ugly” produce, the San Francisco startup delivers grocery boxes of affordable food that the traditional supply chain tends to overlook.
Whether it’s scarring, insect damage or oversupply, Imperfect Produce is always on the lookout for undervalued food in need of rescue. This might include packaged goods that are short coded or mislabeled, or produce rejected by traditional grocers on cosmetic grounds. While their marketing materials often feature conjoined carrots and misshapen mangos with craft store googly eyes, their most common complaint from customers is that the produce really isn’t that weird.
“The absurd stuff gets all of the limelight on our Instagram page,” says Imperfect Produce’s content manager Reilly Brock, “But the reality of what counts as ugly - or second grade produce - the average consumer won’t be able to notice.”
“That just kind of speaks to how arbitrary and limiting these standards are,” he continues. “A huge goal of ours as a company - in addition to delivering the produce - is delivering that knowledge and starting a conversation about, ‘Hey, why do we value certain things that we grow and not others, and is there a way we can value all of it?’”
Often times, he points out, farmers won’t even harvest crops that fall short of supermarket beauty standards. They’re left to rot in the field because the payout isn’t worth the farmer’s time and labor costs, “which is a real tragedy, both on an environmental level, but also on an economic level for the farmers,” says Brock. “Not being able to sell a chunk of your acreage every year is really hurting your bottom line and making farming harder.”
“We offer a chance for the farmers to sell us this produce and get it to folks at home so they can enjoy it,” says Brock. Recently, Imperfect Produce secured a crop of California almonds with mild insect damage that otherwise would have been shipped out of the country for processing. Instead, they were able to pay the grower a fair price for the almonds, and cut back on fuel emissions by helping them reach consumers closer to home.
Being nimble and scrappy has served the young company well so far, and has enabled them to seize opportunities when they arise. “What we’ve learned is that big grocery operates in kind of slow, clunky ways, and we can offer more flexible outlets that help prevent waste,” says Brock citing a supply of organic lentils that recently came their way. A previous order had fallen through, leaving the Montana grain co-op holding the bag - a quarter million pound bag at that. Imperfect Produce was able to step in and take some of that stock off their hands and get it straight to American consumers within weeks.
Though much what shows up on a customer’s doorstep in summer will be grown in their region, Imperfect Produce doesn’t fancy itself a local produce company. Instead, they abide by a “follow the waste” ethos that takes their buyers to various agricultural regions throughout the year.
“With the goal of reducing waste, we’re going to be sourcing from wherever large amounts of produce are being grown because that’s where the most of it is going to waste and [is] at risk of going to waste,” he says. This model has allowed their business to scale more quickly than smaller, home grown enterprises, and they have expanded nationally thanks to the help of an investment from NBA star Kevin Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures.
Despite their waxing popularity, Imperfect Produce respects the role farmers markets and CSAs play in the food system. “We try to be really honest and upfront that we are not a CSA,” says Brock, “If local is your number one, ride or die priority as a consumer, then you should shop at a farmers market or a CSA.”
Imperfect Produce is providing value in a different way, he explains, enabling consumers who may have been getting their food exclusively from supermarkets to think about food and seasonality differently. And maybe, take a risk on something that was previously out of their comfort zone.
In their pursuit of food waste hotspots, Imperfect Produce has tapped into packaged goods as well. “Food waste isn’t just limited to the produce aisle, it’s not just limited to the farm,” says Brock. “Elsewhere in our food system, packaged foods or dry goods are also going to waste or getting undervalued. This happens for a long list of reasons, but some of the most common ones happen with best by and sell by dates.”
“The dirty secret of the food industry is that most of these dates are - I don’t want to say meaningless - but they’re hyper conservative suggestions for inventory stock keeping purposes,” he says.
Consumers often toss out food prematurely based on a date stamped on the side of the package, and grocery stores won’t even stock items that are short coded (nearing their so called “expiration” dates). With the exception of infant formula, sell by dates aren’t federally governed, and are not hard and fast food safety guidelines. This has created an opportunity for Imperfect Produce to include designer snacks and pantry staples at an affordable price in addition to their signature “ugly” fruits and veggies. For many customers, a bag of kettle chips isn’t going to hang around the house for more than a couple days anyway, so a pending sell by date doesn’t raise a lot of concern.
Food industry associations and the USDA are pushing for changes that clarify food labeling discrepancies. Aside from perishable items like meat and milk, most believe a more flexible best by date would do the trick. Even then, some wonder, would we struggle to break out of our set in ways?
There’s still a lot of work to do to educate consumers and combat common misconceptions about food that is “good” and food that is “bad.” As a company, Imperfect Produce is tackling food waste issues on the supply end, but there are even more opportunities to conserve on the homefront.
“Even if you’re not a customer of ours,” says Brock, “We want to help share knowledge, tips and tricks, and ideas with you.” Through blogging, email marketing and social media, they’re inspiring home cooks to pickle and preserve, find new uses for food scraps, get creative with leftovers, and embark on whole fridge culinary adventures.
From the fun and quirky, to the how-have-I-lived-my-whole-life-without-knowing-this practical, Imperfect Produce is taking the pretension out of green living, and hopefully inspiring folks to address waste in other parts of their lives. They strive to deliver value to the community and their employees (who get an ownership stake), and bring about meaningful change in the food system – one ugly box at a time.
“Food waste is a big problem, and to solve it, it’s going to take action on every level of society,” says Brock. While the stakes are real in the fight against consumer waste, it seems the team at Imperfect Produce is having a whole lot of fun evangelizing the beauty of the ugly produce and finding opportunities to play with their food.