Imperfect Produce: Can It Help the Food Waste Problem?

Misshapen eggplant is a good example of imperfect produce that contributes to food waste.
Credit: Imperfect Produce

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

It’s a familiar saying that basically means beauty is subjective and often influenced by personal taste.

However, there ARE some basic standards when it comes to things like size, color, and dimensions.

For this reason, most grocery shoppers wouldn’t choose the eggplant pictured here. Misshapen items like this are passed over for their more “attractive” counterparts.

It seems that society’s preoccupation with perfection has spilled over from physical appearance and possessions to the foods we buy. Unfortunately, this obsession with image is contributing to a severe waste of food.


Food Waste in America

With such a high level of hunger throughout the world, it’s shocking that 40% of all food produced in the U.S. is thrown away.

The breakdown in categories looks like this:

  • 2% – Manufacturing
  • 16% – Farms
  • 43% – Homes
  • 40% – Consumer-facing business (Grocery stores, restaurants, etc.)

A typical family of four tosses out approximately $1800 of food each year, while 40 million Americans go hungry.

We spend $218 billion dollars growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of food that is never eaten.

Aside from the hunger pangs felt by many people, there are other pain points involved. The farm industry and environment are hurt through wasted resources like cropland, fertilizer, and freshwater.

This waste also contributes to climate change. Food that ends up in landfills produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Why so much loss?

  • Cosmetic – Fruits and veggies that are bruised or blemished in some way.
  • Off spec – Foods that don’t meet strict specifications of the buyer, usually due to the way they’ve been harvested or packaged.
  • Surplus/Excess Inventory – Can result from over forecasted production, cancelled orders, or better than expected harvest.
  • Not enough demand – The stalks & leaves, which make up 2/3 of the broccoli plants, used to be left in the field because buyers only wanted the crowns.
  • Packaging changes – When a label or brand undergoes changes the old packaged items often languish in warehouses.

Saving Money and Food

In response to the food insecurity facing our nation today, several food delivery companies have formed. Their mission is to source ugly produce and imperfect grocery items (that would normally be thrown out) and sell them at a discounted price.

One of these is Imperfect Produce, a company started by co-founders Ben Simon and Ben Chesler. While a student at the University of Maryland, Simon noticed a great deal of food waste in the cafeteria. He started the Food Recovery Network (FRN) that aimed to stop waste on college campuses. Since then, the non-profit program has spread to 180+ schools around the country.

During his work with FRN, Simon met Chesler and together they scaled the idea nationwide. Taking it one step further, they decided to source “ugly” produce directly from farms and deliver it to the consumer at a discount.

Imperfect Produce officially opened shop on August 8, 2015. Other companies, such as Misfit Market and Hungry Harvest, have adopted the same business model and started their own operation.

How Imperfect Produce works:

  • The company networks with approx. 200 farmers/producers.
  • The seasonal menu changes weekly, while staple items are offered all the time.
  • The consumer can customize their box each week with desired items.
  • A specific delivery day is designated according to the customer’s location in an effort to reduce the company’s carbon footprint.
  • They offer the convenience of online shopping & home delivery at a 30% discount, while eliminating wasted food.

At first glance this seems like a win-win. However, there is an opposing viewpoint that says these businesses add to the existing problem of a surplus market.

The companies, though well-intentioned, are now competing with the other players in the surplus market, incentivizing farmers to overproduce to meet that demand.  

Eric Holt-Gimenez, Executive Director of Food First, believes that changes in national food policies and international trade rules are needed to solve the problems of food insecurity today.

“The reason we have so much waste in the first place is because of overproduction,” Holt-Gimenez said. “This is a way to capitalize on overproduction and increase the flow of waste.”

An opinion piece published in 2017 in the Globe and Mail talks about why so many people are starving despite a food surplus. It’s a short, but eye-opening article that sums up this contradiction. Written by Doug Saunders, he commented:

Starvation does not happen because of a shortage of food. And starvation does not happen because there are too many people. There is plenty enough food for all the world’s people – in fact, with a little effort, we could double the amount produced. Governments are paying farmers to cut back their harvests, as we have run out of storage space.

We all need to help end food waste. That begins with educating ourselves about every step in the food supply chain. This knowledge enables us to support and vote for government representatives and policies that will better manage surplus markets and food infrastructure overall.

We must also make changes in our own kitchens and recognize the value of less-than-perfect-looking food. Don’t judge a book by its cover; there just might be something delicious inside…one that has a happy ending!



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