Reducing Food Waste the Imperfect Produce Way (with video from the Sustainability Unconference)

Bay Area startup, Imperfect Produce, saw the ugly veggies we
throw away as absurd waste and created a business model
around it.

We all know that food waste is an issue. The statistics are
amazing: the NRDC estimates 40% of all food is wasted in the U.S.
 It all translates into 25% of all water (11 trillion
gallons annually), 31% of cropland, 30% of fertilizer, and 141
trillion calories wasted…in the United States alone.

Globally, the United Nations estimates that 51% of all fruits
and veggies are wasted. And while some of the waste may be
inevitable, a lot of it is perfectly edible stuff that goes
straight from the farm to the dump. The reasons vary, but the
principal driver of the waste is the fact that retail outlets
only want to sell “perfect” looking food. Carrots that grow
crookedly or pears with slight blemishes on their skin are
undesirable, and despite being nutritionally and flavorfully
identical to their prettier counterparts, these ‘ugly’ fruits
and veggies are viewed as unsellable, which leads to a fifth of
all fruits and vegetables grown on farms in the U.S. to go
directly from soil to landfill.

Sustainability is all about closing loops and eliminating
waste. A Bay Area based startup called Imperfect Produce saw this
absurd waste, and created a business model around it. Instead
of farmers having to spend money to send their perfectly
nutritious food into a landfill, Imperfect lined up customers
ready to eat weird looking food, and is now paying farmers for
those oddball shapes and colors of fruits and
veggies.Bay Area startup, Imperfect Produce, saw the ugly veggies we throw away as absurd waste and created a business model around it.

Video from the Sustainability Unconference

At the latest Sustainability Unconference in San Francisco in
January, Dylan Bondy, Outreach Team Lead of Imperfect Produce,
gave a talk about the food waste ecosystem, and what their
company is doing to fix the problem. The statistics he
presented (including those above), were eye-opening to say the
least: 34.7 M tons of food goes into landfills each year,
making it the largest component of landfill waste. That’s
right: we toss out more food than plastic (28.9 M tons), paper
24.4 M tons), metal 14.8 M tons), and wood (13.4M
tons). Obviously, finding an affordable and smart solution to
food waste will help extend the life of our landfills, reduce
methane emissions from rotting produce, and go a long way
toward reducing the amount of fossil fuels used in our
agriculture sector as well as eliminating hunger.

In one of the funnier moments in this very entertaining talk,
Bondy reveals the #1 complaint they get from customers, which
you will mostly likely never guess. He also discusses why a
scarred piece of tree fruit (apples, pears) that would normally
get tossed in the trash actually have more nutrients than their
more pristine cousins, and how food entrepreneurs and community
members interested in sustainable food can get cheaper organic
ingredients to create their products.

Imperfect Produce

The company started in August 2015, and delivered 150 boxes of
produce direct to consumers in its first week. By January 2017,
it was delivering 5800 boxes in San Francisco Bay area per
week. It has since expanded and in its first week in LA, it had
over 600 delivery customers. The company offers lower
costs than grocery store pricing, and also a discount for
low-income people (not necessarily card-carrying EBT or SNAP,
but just income qualification).

Imperfect Produce also works with processors — for instance, an
organic baby food manufacturer and an organic broth company.
They look for value-aligned partners, so if you know any food
processors that want to create organic foods, get in touch with
Imperfect to discuss some options for large quantities of
produce ingredients. Imperfect also has a partnership with
LA Kitchen, which brings in people in transition, getting out
of prison, for instance, to give job training to help produce a
finished product (a value added product) for the local market.

Most of the produce has nothing wrong and nothing dangerous in
it. It is wasted mainly because it didn’t fit the right shape,
size, color. Why is it not donated? According to Bondy, it’s
simple economics—the cheapest, easiest thing to do for farmers
is to send it to landfill, as there are no tax incentives for
eliminating this food waste.

The economics work: Imperfect can provide a solution at $15 vs.
$38 that a competitor might charge for similarly sized organic
boxes of delivered produce. The big challenge with produce
oriented companies has always been investment—given that it’s a
perishable product, it’s hard to scale at a rate that investors
get excited. So historically most investment, even in “slow
money” type investments aimed at sustainable or healthy foods
tend to go toward processed food items (think Annie’s Mac &
Cheese or Silk soy milk).

However, Imperfect’s model doesn’t rely on any one particular
type of produce or any one source for that produce. All farmers
ugly produce
they’d like to turn from a liability into an
asset. Imperfect Produce gives them a way to do it and
therefore can scale quickly.

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