Ugly Produce Onto Tables

In the field where they were grown or in the supermarkets for which they were once destined, they would presumably have been discarded. Not because they are inedible — simply because they do not make the aesthetic cut.

But the notion that real food has curves may be as catchy as the subversive advertising campaign on women’s beauty.

“We find that it is really easy to convince people when they realize they can pay a fraction of the price to get the same kind of taste and health,” said Ron Clark, the chief supply officer for Imperfect Produce, a San Francisco Bay Area start-up that has been selling what it calls “cosmetically challenged” fruit and vegetables for the last six months. “Once one person is convinced, it doesn’t take much to get them to convert others.”


Imperfect Produce, a San Francisco Bay Area start-up, specializes in produce that is misshapen or cosmetically deficient but otherwise perfectly edible.CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

In food-obsessed San Francisco and its neighboring cities, the company has marketed itself in large part by relying on cheeky social media campaigns: A picture of a particularly odd-shaped pepper is accompanied with the message “bite me.” A particularly bulbous tomato is labeled “my curves are good for you,” and a strangely large lemon is “more to love.”

In some parts of the Bay Area, where farmers’ market shopping is the norm and a $10 heirloom tomato hardly raises eyebrows, the notion that produce can be slightly discolored or oddly formed hardly seems like a tough sell. But Mr. Clark and his colleagues have not had an easy time of convincing mainstream supermarkets that their produce should fill the aisles.

”There’s a leap here that not many buyers are willing to make yet,” Mr. Clark said. “We’ve expected uniform produce for decades, so it’s not going to change overnight.”

Raley’s, a grocery chain based in Northern California, sold Imperfect’s peppers, pears and apples for a few months this year, pricing them about 40 percent lower than their more traditional-looking counterparts. But after introducing the pilot program with much fanfare, the chain dropped it this fall. Store officials declined to comment for this article.

Jordan Figueiredo, a solid waste specialist in nearby Castro Valley, began a social media campaign promoting ugly produce this year. Each day, he sends out pictures — carrots joined at the hip, apples with ample middles, whatever strange-looking thing that catches his fancy. He began a petition asking Walmart and Whole Foods to commit to carrying ugly produce, but neither chain has signed on yet.


At Imperfect Produce, employees sorted through a week’s worth of vegetables last month before packing them up for delivery to customers. CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

“There is a real chicken and an egg problem, because retailers say they won’t sell this because people don’t buy it, and people say they want to buy it but retailers won’t sell it,” said Jonathan Bloom, who wrote “American Wasteland,” exploring why so much food is wasted in the United States. From 1974 to 2006, the amount of food Americans wasted increased by 50 percent, he said, adding that ugly produce was the “gateway drug” into the larger and more complicated problems around food waste generally.

“Most people really don’t view the oddities as better, and quite the opposite,” Mr. Bloom said. “There is still some deep-seated, visceral notion that things that look perfect won’t harm us.”

Imperfect Produce is just one of the ways that entrepreneurs and environmentalists are grappling with food waste, which is increasingly seen as a kind of epidemic. In Boston, the former president of Trader Joe’s has opened a market and prepared-food shop that is selling packaged food that has passed its listed “sell-by” date but is still safe (and tasty) enough for consumption. The food at the market, called Daily Table, also includes produce that has been gleaned from local fields and orchards.

San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., have required household composting for years, and so do some other major cities, such as Seattle. In New York City, entire menus have been developed to limit food waste. A book published in September, “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook,” encourages home cooks to look for every chance to use a stalk that they might otherwise throw away; its author, Dana Gunders, began her research of food waste for the Natural Resources Defense Council, where she is a staff scientist.

“The main reason that food doesn’t get harvested is because it will not meet shelf-life requirements,” Ms. Gunders said. “Now there’s a lot of energy about wanting to increase access to good food and wanting to get more out of the earth, so the juxtaposition of those things creates a lot of interest in this right now.”


Ron Clark, left, chief supply officer; Ben Simon, center, chief executive officer; and Ben Chesler, chief operating officer, in Imperfect Produce’s warehouse in Emeryville, Calif., last month. CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

At Imperfect Produce, Ben Simon, the chief executive, and Ben Chesler, the chief operating officer, began their work on food waste as college students, when they saw trays of food from the campus cafeterias thrown out each night. Mr. Chesler and Mr. Simon created Food Recovery Network, which now has more than 100 colleges donating uneaten food to soup kitchens.

“We kept hearing how much food was left, even in the fields,” Mr. Chesler said. “We see this as a way of getting more people to eat more healthy food.”

The pair met Mr. Clark, who had spent more than a decade working to bring produce that would have otherwise gone to waste to food banks across California. Using his relationship with suppliers, the three have created a business that has attracted attention from many of the tech luminaries in the region, including the design firm Ideo, which receives its own drop-off each week.

In the week before Thanksgiving, Imperfect’s produce box included avocados, turnips, pomegranates, sweet potatoes, squash and hachiya persimmons.

“They are offering a whimsical way to understanding how unreasonable our mainstream produce specifications are,” Mr. Bloom said. “Anyone who has a backyard garden can understand that food grows in fun and funky ways — the notion that it is uniform is just a fallacy.”

Edible, but Ugly

The New York Times.Watch in Times Video »  To combat food waste, Imperfect Produce, a San Francisco Bay Area start-up, sells fresh fruits and vegetables that never make it to grocery store shelves.  By ERIK OLSEN on Publish Date November 23, 2015.

Photos by Jim Wilson

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