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Food’s Funny-Looking Future: ‘Ugly’ Produce Delivery

Should fruits and vegetables go to waste just because they’re not pretty? These home-delivery subscription services find a market for the misshapen. Food’s Funny-Looking Future: ‘Ugly’ Produce Delivery

Lopsided Red Peppers. Bent potatoes. Scratched eggplants. To Liselle Pires, it’s all delicious.

A few years ago, when Ms. Pires moved to Seattle to take a job with Microsoft, she looked for a way to shop for food that suited her diet, which she describes as plant-based. First she joined a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA, paying up front to receive part of a farm’s harvest throughout the growing season. But she struggled to find time in her packed schedule to pick up her share each week.

By The Numbers / The Troubling Disconnect Between Food Waste And Food Insecurity In The U.S.

10% of the energy, 50% of the land and 80% of the fresh water consumed in this country goes to getting food on tables.

63 million tons of food per year—30% to 40% of what’s available for human consumption—goes uneaten.

20 billion pounds of food waste annually comes from farms that can’t find buyers for their products.

40 million Americans were considered food insecure in the year 2017.

So she turned to Imperfect Produce, a subscription box filled with odd-shaped or blemished but wholly edible fruits and vegetables, delivered weekly to her door. The service allows her to customize the box and opt out of fruits and vegetables she doesn’t want. “It was fresh,” she said, and cost roughly half what she paid at the store. “You’re saving millions of pounds of produce that’s pretty much being left on the ground and going to waste.”

According to the Department of Agriculture, billions of pounds of fruits and vegetables go uneaten in the U.S. each year—30% to 40% of the food supply. At the farm level, before produce even enters distribution, one-third goes to waste, by USDA estimates.

Founded in 2015, Imperfect Produce now serves over 15 cities, mainly on the West Coast. Over the past few years, a number of similar, venture-capital-backed startups have helped form an alternative distribution channel for farmers to move produce that wouldn’t meet the top grade standards the USDA sets and some grocers and distributors require.

Holly Scudero, a freelance writer and editor and mother of two in Fairfax, Va., uses a competitor, Hungry Harvest, to get produce delivered each week. Once she receives her boxes on Friday, she uses the weekend to plan the upcoming week’s meals. “I’ll look at what’s inside and think, okay, well, I’ve got a head of lettuce in here so I have to do a big main course salad at some point,” she said. “Or if there’s asparagus, we’ll have that as a side dish.” Then she heads to the grocery store to buy other foods to supplement.

Hungry Harvest was founded in 2014 after receiving a $100,000 investment via the TV show “Shark Tank.” Currently, the company delivers mainly to the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, but it is in the process of expanding to other cities, including Detroit. Food’s Funny-Looking Future

Philadelphia-based startup Misfits Market launched in 2018. The company currently sources from farms that are certified organic but is looking into partnering with conventional farms too. Abhi Ramesh, the company’s CEO, said, “A good 75% of the product that we come in contact with wouldn’t have a home.”

For farmers, these distribution opportunities can be game-changing. “Less [is] being sent to the cows and more to people,” said Stephen Paul, a category director at Homegrown Organic Farms, a company that represents over 80 different growers. “[It’s] anywhere from 15-20% being saved for distribution for consumption.” The income makes a big impact on the bottom line. “It could be the difference between a family farm staying in business versus going out of business,” said Mr. Paul.

For consumers, these services are just one option. In Philadelphia, Aja Beech, a grant writer and communications consultant, buys imperfect produce at her grocery store. “It’s less expensive,” she said. “There were times my family and I were on public assistance [and] as a single mom, that would be the most understandable choice.” Food’s Funny-Looking Future

CSAs let those who can do a weekly pickup partner more directly with farmers. The Ugly CSA, run by Pittsburgh-based nonprofit 412 Food Rescue, both reduces the packaging waste that selling in stores generates and helps to foster an efficient food system. “It’s very expensive for farmers to harvest produce they can’t sell,” said Leah Lizarondo, 412 Food Rescue co-founder and CEO. Last year 200 subscribers picked up shares around the city, at a cost of $20 a week. Furthermore, Ms. Lizarondo pointed out, the program ensured that the 204,000 gallons of water required to grow the produce was not wasted.

Just don’t expect it all to look weird. “Ugly food can have very minimal blemishes,” said Hana Uman, program director at 412 Food Rescue. “Sometimes people are disappointed that it’s not ugly enough.”

Food’s Funny-Looking Future:

Down for Delivery / How 3 Ugly-Produce Subscription Services Compare

Imperfect Produce:

Customers Can Choose A Conventional Or Organic Option (Which Costs More Per Box) And Then Select A Size, Ranging From Small (7-9 Pounds Of Produce) To Extra-Large (23-25 Pounds).

COST: $11 For A Small Conventional Box To $43 For An Extra-Large Organic Box.

Can You Customize? Yes

Delivery Zones: Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Twin Cities and Washington, D.C.

Misfits Market:

There Are Two Box Offerings: The Mischief Box, Which Holds 10-12 Pounds Of Organic Mixed Fruits And Veggies; And The Madness Box, At Approximately 18-20 Pounds.

Cost: $19 For The Mischief Box; $34 For The Madness Box

Can You Customize? Not Currently

Delivery Zones: All Zip Codes In Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont

Hungry Harvest:

Customers Can Choose From A Standard Or Organic Option (Which Costs More Per Box) And Then The Size, From A Mini, Designed To Feed 1-2 People Over A Week, To A Super, Good For 4-7 People.

Cost: $15 For A Mini Box Up To $50 For A Super-Size Organic Box

Can You Customize? Yes

Delivery Zones: Detroit Metro Area, Greater Philadelphia, Maryland, North Carolina Triangle, Northern Delaware, Virginia, Southern New Jersey, South Florida and Washington, D.C..

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