The produce aisle at most grocery stores aims for uniformity, with piles of perfectly shaped, flawless-looking apples or grapefruit or zucchini. On farms, that means that food waste is partly an image problem–if a carrot is twisted or a lemon has tattoo-like scars, it probably won’t ever make it to consumers. In the U.S., around 6 billion pounds of ugly produce is thrown out each year.
Weird-looking fruits and vegetables don’t actually taste any different than their photogenic counterparts. So a new startup plans to sell only ugly produce–believing that a little marketing, and a better price, can help keep the food out of landfills or use as animal feed.
“I think what it comes down to is price,” says Ben Chesler, who cofounded Imperfect with Ben Simon and Ron Clark. “We’re going to be 30% cheaper than traditional produce. And it’s the kind of product that once you’ve tried it, you realize it tastes the exact same. Then you’re willing to embrace it.”
Three years ago, as undergrads at Brown University and the University of Maryland, Chesler and Simon started the Food Recovery Network, a project to recover food waste from campus dining halls. It quickly spread to over 100 other universities, and the founders decided to look for the next food waste problem to tackle.
“We were asking our advisors,” says Chesler. “Universally, they were telling us you have to go to farms.”
When fruit or vegetables are deemed too ugly for sale, everything that went into growing them is also wasted, from fertilizer to water. As much as 50% of any particular crop might be tossed out because of looks. In a place like California–where the vast majority of water goes to agriculture–eating ugly fruit could help save some of the state’s dwindling freshwater supplies.
Chesler and Simon teamed up with Clark, who has spent 15 years sourcing some of California’s wasted produce for local food banks, and was looking for a new market-based solution. This summer, the startup will begin selling boxes of misshapen fruits and vegetables to consumers in the Bay Area. They’re also partnering with a major supermarket chain to introduce a branded line of ugly food in stores.
“They’ll be the first major chain to carry Imperfect produce,” Chesler says. “That will be a really awesome way for more consumers to get access to it. We’re still working out the details, but it will be in its own section, with signage explaining why it’s cheaper, and why it’s better for the environment.”
It won’t be the first grocery chain to attempt something like this, but probably the first major effort in the U.S. In 2014, the French chain Intermarche launched a new line of “inglorious” produce that immediately sold out. Five other chains in France launched similar campaigns, along with others in Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands. More campaigns followed in Australia and Canada.
All of these examples point to the fact that consumers are ready to eat ugly produce, Chesler says. “Nature doesn’t grow things exactly perfectly,” he says. “I think we’ve tried to force the idea that all vegetables grow in the same way, and it’s just not natural.”