Growing Ideas: Turning ‘ugly’ produce into profit

Imperfect Produce feeds appetite for affordable, healthy food

Over 20% of the fruit and vegetables grown in America never leaves the farm – it just doesn't ‘look right’. Over the last three years a San Francisco start-up has saved that 20% and created a new revenue stream for farmers.

When Imperfect Produce CEO Ben Simon was a student at Maryland University, he saw how much food ended up in the garbage. In response, he founded the Food Recovery Network, dedicated to cutting waste on college campuses. He and Imperfect Produce co-founder Ben Chesler soon realized how much more impact they could have if they tackled food waste further up the supply chain – at the farm.

Low CO2 footprints

“That was back in 2015,” says Aleks Strub, the start-up’s Chief Marketing Officer. “Today, we employ hundreds of people who facilitate the delivery of less-than-perfect produce to homes in cities including San Francisco, Chicago, Portland and Indianapolis.” These are all places close to the farms they buy from, keeping CO2 footprints low.

To date, Imperfect Produce has saved over 11,500 tons of food, nearly four billion liters (one billion gallons) of water, USD 10.3 million (EUR 8.8 million) on groceries and 39,400 tons of CO2. While the company’s core issue is tackling food waste, it has also created a new revenue stream for farmers; the crooked carrots and bent beets the start-up buys from them would otherwise be discarded or used as cattle feed. “A farmer might even have paid for the produce to be shipped to markets, only to have retailers reject it,” adds Strub.

“Cities were really ripe for our idea”

- Aleks Strub, Imperfect Produce

Produce delivered to your door

Customers buy online, selecting the produce they want, and a box of misshapen (but delicious and nutritious) fruit and veg is delivered to their door at a time of their choosing. “Cities were really ripe for our idea,” says Strub. “We won Rabobank's FoodBytes! competition in 2016 and The New York Times has run a story on us.”

The company has taken on a large number of drivers and warehouse staff to be able to offer home delivery. “One of our biggest issues is ‘operational heaviness’ with so many people to hire and a lot of costs upfront,” says Strub. “But it’s awesome to create so many jobs for people.”

Simon, Chesler and Strub have run pilots marketing the produce to retailers, but it was too wasteful; by selling directly to consumers they keep the lines short and costs down. Imperfect Produce’s prices are 30% to 50% cheaper than at the market.

In five years’ time, it wants to be operating across the US. “Not just in new locations,” says Strub, “but with a deeper reach.” One ambition is to bring its food to more citizens on a low income. “SNAP, the federal nutrition program that replaced food stamps, doesn’t extend to food bought online, so we give an additional discount to people on a tight budget. One of my dreams is to see the US Department of Agriculture turn that decision around so that even more people have access to affordable, healthy food.”