Since launching in August 2015, the boxed fruit and vegetable delivery company Imperfect Produce has helped build the market for so-called “ugly” produce. It does that by buying leftovers from farmers that traditional grocery stores might otherwise reject because they look funny–be it the shape, size, or scarring. Then it resells those to online customers willing to accept these still fresh and tasty oddities, at 30% lower prices than retail.
That’s good for farmers, because they don’t take a loss by having to compost the harvest or sell it away as animal feed. It’s good for the environment, because since inception, Imperfect has salvaged 40 million pounds of produce that might otherwise have been wasted. Now Imperfect is poised to expand substantially, even while recognizing that their model is also, well, sort of imperfect.
Imperfect currently operates in 18 different cities around the country. Within the next year, it expects to be in 30, with new offshoots especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Before that, though, in May 2019, it’ll debut a national line extension called Imperfect Picks that redistributes even more classic grocery staples–from flour to quinoa to bread–at similarly deep discounts to customers. Like ugly produce, Imperfect Picks will have some marginal defect that doesn’t affect quality or taste. They can come from farmers with unexpected or perhaps surprising looking surpluses, or manufacturers who maybe mislabeled something or ended up with overages that need to move before they expire.
One early offering that hit some test markets was what Imperfect CEO and cofounder Ben Simon calls “not quite tri-color” quinoa from a grower in Peru whose harvest wasn’t being sold because it didn’t meet a supplier’s internal color standard. Another was organic lentils grown in Montana that became available when the original buyer dramatically reduced the size of their order. The company has also sold chocolate granola that stores didn’t want to take because it might not sell by the best-by date. Shipping directly to customers solves that because there’s no lag time on shelves. “This country wastes about 40% of the food that’s grown,” adds Simon in a separate conversation. “So there’s tens of billions of pounds of produce and other grocery items that could and should be recovered. Our vision with Imperfect is to be a vehicle for as much of that product to find a home as possible.”
But just salvaging food is different than ensuring it’s equitably distributed. As the Atlantic reported, criticisms of ugly produce delivery companies range from them rerouting produce that might otherwise reach food pantries, to them encroaching on turf that once belonged to community farmers, whose own businesses are essential to making fresh local food more available for everyone.
“There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding our model,” says Simon in an email to Fast Company. “Most of them boil down to Imperfect not being a silver bullet for every problem within the food system, which we’re the first to admit. At the end of the day, everyone agrees there is 20 billion pounds of produce getting needlessly wasted each year. Our focus remains on taking action in the areas we can have a positive impact on right now: Paying family farmers a fair price, reducing waste, advancing food access, and creating some of the best living wage jobs in food.”
Imperfect has been working on various ways to reach homes in food-insecure areas as well. Unlike some other box ordering companies, it delivers to every zip code within a new city it enters–that includes food deserts, where boxed food deliveries can be a good alternative to traveling miles to a store with healthy options. The company’s Reduced-Cost Boxes are available for anyone who qualifies for SNAP or federal food assistance benefits at a 50% below retail discount. So far, the company claims that roughly 10,000 households have used their service. (It currently costs Imperfect about $150,000 per month to subsidize that.) Current SNAP recipients can’t actually use their food stamps to purchase these items, but that’s expected to change: In mid-April 2019, the USDA reportedly green-lit a two-year food stamp delivery pilot that’s expected to expand to other states. Participating retailers include Amazon, Walmart, and ShopRite. Imperfect also claims to have donated 2.2 million pounds of produce to over 90 nonprofits and food banks in different cities. (When Fast Company asked for more information, we were referred to their website.)
Far less food will be wasted as the company expands–and people suffering from food insecurity will potentially have more options. Whether that means substantial change for fixing hunger, however, remains to be seen. “Our ultimate goal is to create a more sustainable and just food system, while lifting up growers, our local communities, and the environment in the process,” Simon says over email.