‘Ugly’ food delivery service comes to Madison

Imperfect Produce sources “ugly” and surplus produce directly from farms and delivers it directly to customers instead of wasting the food or forcing farmers to sell it at a loss.

Madison-area consumers will soon have a new option for purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables, one that delivers straight to their door and helps reduce food waste at the same time.

That’s the idea behind Imperfect Produce, a San Francisco-based company that sources “ugly” and surplus produce directly from farms and delivers it directly to customers instead of wasting the food or forcing farmers to sell it at a loss.

On Monday, May 6, Imperfect Produce will open a Madison warehouse that will serve nearby communities, giving consumers an environmentally friendly shopping option that also boasts up to 30 percent potential savings on their normal grocery bill. Customers can fully customize their experience by choosing a box size from small to extra large and selecting organic vs. conventional produce, with prices starting at $12.

Ben Simon

According to Ben Simon, co-founder and CEO, expanding to Madison made a lot of sense for Imperfect Produce, which currently operates in 18 markets including Milwaukee, making it the largest delivery provider of “ugly” produce in the country. The company plans to expand across the U.S. to 30 markets by the end of the year.

“Folks in Madison are [passionate] about food and supporting farmers,” says Simon. “It’s a community that cares about the same issues that we do, making it a very natural fit with our mission. We’re also excited because we know that Imperfect can have a big impact in Madison. If just 2,500 residents sign up, the community would recover 26,450 pounds of produce each week, and over 1 million pounds of produce a year.”

Imperfect Produce’s initial delivery area will cover from Fitchburg to Middleton, and from Maple Bluff to McFarland. To find out if the company will deliver to their area, customers are able to enter their zip codes at imperfectproduce.com.

Imperfect Produce also works with local food banks to eliminate food waste and build a better food system for everyone. Since its launch, Imperfect has donated over 2.2 million pounds of produce to over 91 nonprofit partners and food banks across the country, a practice Simon says Imperfect plans to continue in Madison.

The cost savings for customers is approximately 30 percent less than grocery store prices, notes Simon. “That being said, we recognize that for some folks this still isn’t enough to afford fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s why we offer customers who meet the income qualifications for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) eligibility for our Reduced Cost Box Program, which takes 33 percent off the cost of their order, every time they order. This works out to buying produce for less than half of what it would cost at the grocery store.

“We believe that it’s important to make good food more accessible to all of our neighbors, regardless of income,” Simon continues. “Since launch, 10,000 low-income families have taken advantage of our reduced-cost box program, with Imperfect contributing $150,000 every month to subsidize these additional discounts.”

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good

Currently, 20 percent of all fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. do not meet the strict cosmetic standards of grocery stores, which results in 20 billion pounds of produce being unharvested or unsold each year, according to Imperfect Produce.

“The reasons grocers don’t typically stock ‘ugly’ produce are due to arbitrary cosmetic standards that exist in today’s food system, which limit access to perfectly good food and have a negative impact on farmers’ bottom lines and the environment,” explains Simon. “Because consumers have become accustomed to buying the ‘perfect’ produce offered at grocery stores, they are wary of ‘ugly’ produce even though it tastes the same and offers the same nutritional benefits. After all, we eat first with our eyes!

“We’re on a mission to change the way people think about food and educate them about steps they can take to limit their own food waste footprint,” adds Simon. “We’ve learned that once people realize that these fruits and vegetables taste the same as the ‘perfect’ ones you’d see in stores, they’re very open minded and enthusiastic about our approach.”

Since launching in 2015, Imperfect has recovered 40 million pounds of produce, 32 million of which was recovered just this past year. This year, the company is on track to recover almost 50 million pounds of produce. In addition to rescuing food, Imperfect has saved 1.2 billion gallons of water, and 110 million pounds of carbon dioxide.

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For Simon, combating food waste has been a passion project.

“While I was a student at the University of Maryland, I noticed that a lot of food was going to waste in the cafeteria,” Simon notes. “In response to this problem, I founded Food Recovery Network (FRN), a nonprofit dedicated to preventing waste on college campuses, which has since expanded to over 180 colleges and universities around the country. It was while I was working with FRN that I met Ben Chesler, who helped me to scale the organization nationwide. We were looking for ways to make an even bigger impact and learned that lots of produce was getting left on farms because it didn’t meet the strict cosmetic standards of grocery stores. We realized how powerful it would be if we sourced ‘ugly’ produce directly from farms and delivered it at a discount to customers’ homes, which inspired us to team up and start Imperfect Produce in August 2015.”                       

Simon says he and his partners have chosen to fight food waste by finding a home for “ugly” produce because it’s a simple yet powerful way to help build a more sustainable and effective food system.

Direct delivery

Simon notes Imperfect Produce settled on a delivery model because it’s not only more convenient than establishing brick-and-mortar locations, it also allows the company to serve a greater volume of people as it expands across the U.S.

“Our method not only offers customers the ability to customize their boxes based on their preferences and budgets, but also the convenience of having produce delivered straight to their doors,” says Simon. “Additionally, our method gives us the opportunity to not only benefit the environment, but growers and local communities, as well.

“Out of the 200 growers we work with, about 80 percent are family farms and another 15 percent or so are co-ops, food hubs, and brokers representing small farmers,” Simon continues. “We forge partnerships with farms across the United States, including in the various regions we serve, to source ‘ugly’ and surplus produce. By prioritizing unharvested crops, which otherwise would be left behind in the field or sold to processors or animal feed producers for very little, we create a new revenue stream for farmers.

“This allows us to have a positive impact on a local and national level, so we can ensure that family farmers are paid a fair price, waste is reduced, and food access is advanced.”

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