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Imperfect Produce: A Rescue Mission to Combat Food Waste

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Imperfect Produce: A Rescue Mission to Combat Food Waste

August 8, 2017

I have tried many different types of tomatoes: green, heirloom, cherry, plum. I have eaten them plain, salted, and drizzled with balsamic. But I had never heard of a nosey tomato—until I encountered Imperfect Produce, that is.

Reilly Brock, who is the content manager at this California-based startup, assures me that what I am calling “nosey tomatoes”—tomatoes with a long, nose-like appendage growing off their side (with what, on some, looks possibly like two nostrils flared angrily)—taste exactly the same as their better-looking counterparts.

But what is different about these tomatoes, as well as the other fruits and vegetables with strange protuberances, small statures, and misshapen bodies that comprise Imperfect Produce’s weekly deliveries to subscribers, is that most grocery stores and other retail channels won’t take them.

“One in five fruits and veggies aren’t making it off of farms, because of superficial quirks—a carrot that’s a little crooked, an eggplant that’s asymmetrical, an apple that’s a bit too small or too large,” says Brock. “Imperfect Produce was founded with the goal of finding these items a home.”

Photography courtesy of Imperfect Produce.

&#8\2\20;Ugly&#8\2\2\1; root vegetables are one of many types of produce a subscriber might find in his or her weekly box delivery. Imperfect Produce partners with local farmers to find a home for fruit and vegetables that are too small, or have other cosmetic issues that prevent the items from meeting the specs of a grocery store.
Above: “Ugly” root vegetables are one of many types of produce a subscriber might find in his or her weekly box delivery. Imperfect Produce partners with local farmers to find a home for fruit and vegetables that are too small, or have other cosmetic issues that prevent the items from meeting the specs of a grocery store.

Imperfect Produce was founded in 2015 to fight food waste through a subscription produce box delivery, sourced directly from local farmers. Co-founders Ben Chesler, Ron Clark, and Ben Simon joined forces to deliver “ugly” produce—which would otherwise go to waste—to consumers in California.

“Historically, farmers have had to make peace with bad outcomes because of increasingly narrow standards for grocery stores,” says Brock.

Radishes from an Imperfect Produce box. The company currently delivers in Los Angeles, Orange County, and the greater Bay Area. Beginning in mid-August, operations will expand to include Portland, Oregon as well.
Above: Radishes from an Imperfect Produce box. The company currently delivers in Los Angeles, Orange County, and the greater Bay Area. Beginning in mid-August, operations will expand to include Portland, Oregon as well.

In California alone, 3 billion pounds of produce go to waste each year, says Brock. Imperfect delivers more than 100,000 pounds of cosmetically challenged crops each week to its customers in Los Angeles, Orange County, and the greater Bay Area. To date, the company has rescued more than 4.5 million pounds from farms.

A typical box delivery can have anything from flowering basil, to below-regulation-size avocados, to strawberries with “white shoulders”—patches of the fruit lacking the signature red coloring. Boxes will also contain items like broccoli leaves that are traditionally left to go to waste in the field.

Imperfect Produce has rescued more than 4.5 million pounds of &#8\2\20;ugly&#8\2\2\1; or unwanted produce, like this misshapen daikon, from farms.
Above: Imperfect Produce has rescued more than 4.5 million pounds of “ugly” or unwanted produce, like this misshapen daikon, from farms.

“A broccoli plant at maturity is two feet tall and two feet across,” says Brock. “In the field, farmers lop that one broccoli head off, and leave everything else behind—including the leaves, which are edible and delicious, kind of like kale. Growing a huge heavy plant and only using the one part is like raising a cow and only selling the filet mignon.”

Cosmetically challenged carrots.
Above: Cosmetically challenged carrots.

Imperfect’s boxes come in four sizes: small (seven to nine pounds), medium (11-13 pounds), large (17-19 pounds), and extra-large (23-25 pounds).

“The boxes are all customizable,” says Brock. “We want it to work for your lifestyle—we want your box to be approachable, affordable, and accessible, not just one size fits all.” Users can suspend their service (for an upcoming period of travel, for example) as well as opt to remove or add specific items.

Grocery stores typically have certain &#8\2\20;specs&#8\2\2\1; for acceptable produce.
Above: Grocery stores typically have certain “specs” for acceptable produce.

Each box comes with a recipe card containing ideas for how to use more unique items.

“There are very few recipes where how the produce looked when it arrived matters for the final product. You are always going to end up peeling, or chopping. If you’re going to thinly shred, for example, it doesn’t matter that your carrot was crooked to start,” says Brock.

Imperfect Produce provides subscribers with a recipe card that offers suggestions for how to use rescued produce.
Above: Imperfect Produce provides subscribers with a recipe card that offers suggestions for how to use rescued produce.

N.B.: Looking for recipes for your imperfect (or perfect) produce? Some of our favorites are:

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