By Piper Wheeler
Ben Simon is perhaps the only Bay Area CEO whose workday includes fondling kiwis. On a Friday morning in a bright Emeryville warehouse, he points to a delicate nub that’s sprouted from a cleft in one of the fruits.
“This one’s got a tail!” he says, like a child at the puppy store. “And look, this one’s kind of bumpy.”
Simon is CEO and co-founder of Imperfect Produce, a startup that delivers boxes of “ugly fruit” to East Bay homes and offices. Founded in August 2015 with a couple hundred subscribers, the company now delivers 870 boxes weekly. Each Saturday, their drivers make stops at residences in Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda, Albany and Emeryville, as well as at office drop-off points in San Francisco.
Each box contains 10 to 14 pounds of produce and costs only $12 for pick-up ($15 for delivery).
Today, fruits and vegetables are piled in giant boxes, waiting to be inspected, sorted and packed. Simon plucks up a seemingly unblemished acorn squash.
“See this orange spot?” he says, pointing to a blaze on one side of the dark-green squash. “Groceries won’t touch this.”
You may not notice, but the produce you pick over in a conventional grocery store has already been carefully curated. Retailers accept only the most unblemished fruits and vegetables, of standard size and color.
Some of the rejected items may be sold to processers, who press greenish oranges into juice or chop up wonky potatoes for fries. But up to 20% of the output of American farms is deemed unacceptable for sale to consumers. Much is termed “byproduct” and transferred to landfills.
Because of cosmetic defects, billions of pounds of American produce are left to rot each year.
“I was just wide-eyed when I saw those numbers,” Simon says.
He notes that disposal of these organic materials produces significant amounts of methane gas — one of the drivers of climate change. Not to mention their production represents a flagrant waste of water, especially notable in California’s drought-stricken farmland. The company estimates that each pound of salvaged produce saves between 10 and 35 gallons of water.
Imperfect Produce targets this waste at its source by buying directly from farmers. Currently, the company sources from 20 farms in Central Valley and Salinas.
Farmers, Simon says, are ecstatic to have this market. Imperfect Produce pays producers 50% below standard rates for their “cosmetically challenged” fruits and vegetables — much better than the haphazard funds offered by processors, who often don’t provide stable demand.
In addition to their direct-to-consumer boxes, Imperfect Produce has partnered with Raley supermarkets to feature lower priced “ugly” fruits and vegetables in some stores. The company is also in talks with other grocery chains.
Simon, along with co-founders Ben Chesler and Ron Clark, has years of experience in saving American food from the landfill. As undergraduates, Simon and Chesler started Food Recovery Network, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping food waste at college campuses.
Food Recovery Network expanded rapidly, and it now operates at 150 colleges in the U.S.
Simon and Chesler were told by an advisor that farms were the real hotspot for the country’s food waste. Then, last year at the Zero Food Waste conference at UC Berkeley, the young men met Ron Clark, who made them think a delivery service like Imperfect Produce might have a future in the Bay Area.
Clark is a veteran advocate for ugly fruits. Until recently, he helped to run Farm to Family, an innovative program that distributes farmers’ lower-grade produce through California’s food banks and soup kitchens.
Clark’s connections to Central Valley farms enabled Imperfect Produce to quickly set up a stable supply chain.
And, because the company does away with the middlemen of the industrial distribution system, this “ugly fruit” may well be fresher than that found in stores.
In an interview published by the company, grower Chris Tantau notes, “What people don’t understand is the fruits and vegetables they find in the stores are eight days, 10 days, two weeks old because of packing requirements, storage and transport. With Imperfect, Ron [Clark] gives me a call and I get it to him in a day.”
So far, subscribers’ reactions have been enthusiastic. At less than a dollar a pound, the fruit and vegetable deliveries offer real savings over the grocery store. On Yelp, customers have left glowing reviews, with just a smattering of grumbles (too-thin asparagus, bruised fruit).
Simon studies his mutant kiwi lovingly: “I think sometimes people are disappointed by how not ugly this stuff is.”
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