Ugly Produce Comes in for a Close Up
Proving Beauty is More than Skin Deep
Blemished carrots, slightly discolored bell peppers, misshapen peaches, heart-shaped beets. Far from being the bad apple in the bunch, imperfect produce is on its way to saving the world…feeding the hungry, putting profits back in farmers’ pockets and decreasing everyone’s food spend. It’s time to recognize the inner beauty of “ugly” produce, and thanks to the efforts of a growing number of dedicated groups and individuals, that time is now.
One of the first, Imperfect, a delivery service that moves “ugly” produce from farm to consumer, was inspired by co-founder Ben Simon’s college experience, back in the not-so-distant days of 2011. Noting the amount of food wasted in his school dining hall, he worked to donate the food to area non-profits, establishing the now national Food Recovery Network.
When he graduated, he wanted to do more, and recognizing that waste started at the farm level – a stunning 20 percent of edible crops are discarded – he worked with California farmers to recover imperfect produce and sell and distribute it to a growing network of environmentally conscientious consumers.
From its Bay area launch in 2015, Imperfect has grown to cover Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle, and now reports more than 10 million pounds of produce saved since inception. At the end of 2017, Imperfect launched in Chicago, setting the company on a path to make an even broader impact, according to CMO Aleks Strub.
“Chicago is a food hub, increasingly known for its incredible food culture, and we want to be part of the renaissance that’s happening here,” she says. The response, continues Strub, has been incredible, putting the company two times over its target goal in just the first month. “People here are driven to try and change the system.”
They’re also pleasantly surprised to find the produce is far from unappealing. In fact, reveals Strub, one of the comments she hears is that the produce is not ugly enough. “It’s such a small difference. Our produce looks like what you’d see in the grocery store, and the quality is strong.”
Another group, Hungry Harvest, is similarly dedicated to ensuring that imperfect produce is rescued and sold to consumers and restaurants, as well as donated to non-profit organizations. Begun in a dorm room in 2014 and championed by Shark Tank in 2015, the company reports more than five million pounds of food recovered and 700,000 pounds donated in its first three years.
A recent partnership with the James Beard Foundation (JBF) is further emphasizing the important role chefs can play by conscientiously choosing go “ugly.” Says JBF’s Katherine Miller: “Hungry Harvest is a simple, actionable concept and participants at our recent Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change responded positively, almost immediately. For restaurants it is a win-win: affordable produce, delicious food and support of positive changes in our food system. Hungry Harvest put it squarely on the plate to connect the action of buying imperfect produce to helping feed those most at need.”
The benefits are significant, she continues: “You’re making sure that farmers and producers don’t lose money, that perfectly good food doesn’t end up in landfills and, in some cases, it can be more cost effective. In most cases there isn’t a difference between ugly and perfect produce, which is the whole point! An ugly carrot looks and tastes the same chopped up, puréed or roasted.”