If you’ve ever grown your own produce, you know that the food that comes out of your garden just doesn’t look the same as grocery store produce. Maybe it’s a little lumpier, a little bigger, a little smaller. Maybe, like me, your tomatoes have some catfacing from a cool spring. Maybe there’s some insect damage. It doesn’t impact how the veggies taste, and if you’re like me, you’ll happily gobble down an ugly tomato or a weird shaped spinach leaf.
This is how Imperfect Foods entered my life.
The Business Model
Imperfect Foods is a business that sources grocery items that don’t go to grocery stores and sells them to consumers. The reasons these foods don’t go to grocery stores vary; maybe they’re too big, maybe they’re too small. Maybe they’re asymmetrical, or maybe they have scarring or blemishes. Maybe they’re just excess inventory.
20 billion pounds of food go to waste in the United States every year, and not all of that is due to the cosmetic standards of grocery stores, but a lot of it is. Imperfect Foods recovers a portion of that waste from the waste stream and puts it back in the hands of consumers.
In between 5% and 30% of any given crop is unmarketable; exhibiting any of the imperfections listed above that keep it off grocery shelves. These foods stay in the field and are plowed under, or farmers sell them to processors at deep discounts (often at a loss, actually).
We are tilling land and using water to grow food that nobody will eat.
So not only is Imperfect Foods filling a much needed role in the economy (putting excess capacity to use), and reducing waste overall, their willingness to purchase imperfect produce from farmers helps farms too, allowing them to make some money off of food that would normally be unmarketable.
I have to say, Imperfect Foods is really killing it on social media. Their friendly, quirky voice plays well in the medium, the photos of boxes of produce really play well to their target market, and they have a great blog with interesting content, including upcoming partnerships with producers, ingredient spotlights, etc. I just spent the time waiting for my box to arrive reading through their blog posts. They also send out emails with recipes, which is nice. I don’t intend to make celery soup any time soon, but it’s nice.
They also will let you know on your account how much food waste you’ve saved, so that’s a feel-good moment as well.
Why Not Give That Food to the Poor?
We do! Many stores and many farmers donate foods that they can’t sell to food banks, and Imperfect Foods sources their produce after donations to food banks have already occurred.
The fact is, the problem of distributing food to the poor isn’t one of availability; of the 20 billion pounds of food wasted per year, Imperfect only captures about 25 million, leaving plenty to go around. To provide perspective, Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, received 1.4 billion (with a b) pounds of produce in 2017.
The problem of feeding the poor is one of infrastructure. It is distribution, and the fact that many poor people lack the time or the means to cook fresh food. It is not that we don’t have enough to go around. Imperfect Foods is not taking that food from the mouths of the hungry. They are scooping up foods that would otherwise go to waste, and building a sustainable business from it.
In fact, as of January 2020, they’ve donated over 4 million pounds of produce to food banks, and also offer discounted boxes for those who qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
So, on to my experience. I saw a friend posting about their first Imperfect Foods box on Facebook. With that post was a photo of a tremendous amount of produce spread out on a table. I craved that bounty. Like many people who have experienced food insecurity, I have a kind of obsession with food. I love cooking it, preserving it, saving it, eating it. I hate throwing it out.
When I saw I could get ten dollars off my first box using her referral link, I decided I would try it out.
So I signed up, and waited anxiously for my shopping period to begin on Friday at 3pm.
I signed up for the produce box, plus a meat pack add on.
When my shopping period opened up, I pulled up the website on my phone and started poking around. The thing I really like about this process was that I could remove things from the standard produce box (the contents of the standard box changes week by week) that I didn’t want and replace them with things I did want. Take out apples, add in apricots!
You don’t need the add on packs to order meat, dairy, or grains, either. You can add meat, dairy, and grains to your order a la carte. Items are priced individually so if you remove a two dollar item and add a three dollar item, you’ll be paying a dollar more.
Through the shopping process, they’ll let you know what some of the “imperfections” are that make the food unmarketable. Inconsistent sizing and excess inventory are common. It’s interesting to see what makes these foods unmarketable.
I found for me that it’s easy to go overboard, but you have a few days to complete your shopping so I just added everything I wanted and then came back in after my bloodlust had calmed and removed items I didn’t think I would reasonably be able to use.
Two things I learned. High interest items run out quick, so start shopping right when your window opens, if possible. Some items will become available again during the shopping period, so if there’s something you weren’t able to get, be sure to check back before the shopping period closes, you might be able to get it then.
The box arrived on Wednesday. They sent a text message when it was out for delivery, and one when it was dropped off. No contact delivery! Wonderful!
I opened up the box and was initially a little overwhelmed. It was more produce than I was used to buying at once, so I was struck with this panic. What am I going to do with all of this? Where am I going to store it? What am I going to do with eight limes? Will my roommate disown me?
Then I took a deep breath and it really wasn’t so bad.
I took a couple of hours to process and stow the produce. One of the cucumbers, the bunch of celery, and the seven stubby carrots all got cut up into sticks for snacks. The blue cheese crumbles got made into blue cheese dressing for salads. The radishes got their tops removed and got put away. Four Valencia oranges went to my computer desk for mid-work snacks.
Nothing came in plastic bags. The only thing in my first box that was bagged separately was the apricots, and they were in a little paper bag, I guess to keep them from getting lost and crushed.
I got everything put away and the end result is that I ate way more fruit and veggies that week than the week before, and returned to the website on Friday at 3pm to nervously shop for my next box.
I like it! I plan to keep getting boxes from them. What’s important to understand is that you’re getting produce that would otherwise have gone to grocery stores, so the things that you get from the grocery store that are generally mushy and/or flavorless (hi, peaches) aren’t going to magically be better. This isn’t a CSA. However, everything I’ve gotten from them has been fresh and of as good or better quality than I would have gotten at the grocery store.
I haven’t done the math needed to determine whether I’m saving money over buying from the grocery store, but the fact of the matter is, I’m buying and eating a lot more produce than I do when I shop at the grocery store, so while I may be spending more money, I’m betting that my money is at least being spent better, if that makes sense.
There are real savings available in organics, which Imperfect does offer, but I don’t typically shop organics so I can’t really say that’s saving me money. But it’s nice for a treat (I got some organic grass fed butter in my last box), and they sometimes have some really weird interesting stuff that I might not otherwise have had the opportunity to purchase, so that’s cool.
The shopping process, the delivery, the product, and all the adjacent media really hits a lot of my buttons, so I’m really enjoying this service. Do I recommend it? I do, and I have, over and over again.
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s almost time to start shopping for my third box.