A startup venture in the San Francisco Bay Area hopes to change minds about “cosmetically challenged” fruit and vegetables that are often discarded needlessly.
EMERYVILLE, Calif. — The eggplants are crooked and a little long-necked, contorted enough that they would probably lose in a beauty pageant against rounder or more symmetrical aubergines.
In the field where they were grown or in the supermarkets for which they were once destined, they would presumably have been discarded. Not because they are inedible — simply because they do not make the aesthetic cut.
But the notion that real food has curves may be as catchy as the subversive advertising campaign on women’s beauty.
“We find that it is really easy to convince people when they realize they can pay a fraction of the price to get the same kind of taste and health,” said Ron Clark, the chief supply officer for Imperfect Produce, a San Francisco Bay Area startup that has been selling what it calls “cosmetically challenged” fruit and vegetables for the last six months. “Once one person is convinced, it doesn’t take much to get them to convert others.”
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Imperfect Produce delivers boxes of ugly fruit and vegetables to people’s doorsteps in the Bay Area. A large box of mixed produce — 17 to 20 pounds of fruits and vegetables, with five to eight types of items, depending on what is in season — costs $18, for example; a small box of fruit (10 to 15 pounds) costs $12 a week. Clark primarily relies on buying produce directly from California farmers and supplements it with what he can find at wholesale produce markets in Oakland.
In food-obsessed San Francisco and its neighboring cities, the company has marketed itself in large part by relying on cheeky social-media campaigns: A picture of a particularly odd-shaped pepper is accompanied with the message “bite me.” A particularly bulbous tomato is labeled “my curves are good for you,” and a strangely large lemon is “more to love.”
In some parts of the Bay Area, where farmers-market shopping is the norm and a $10 heirloom tomato hardly raises eyebrows, the notion that produce can be slightly discolored or oddly formed hardly seems like a tough sell. But Clark and his colleagues have not had an easy time of convincing mainstream supermarkets that their produce should fill the aisles.
“”There’s a leap here that not many buyers are willing to make yet,” Clark said. “We’ve expected uniform produce for decades, so it’s not going to change overnight.”
Raley’s, a grocery chain based in Northern California, sold Imperfect’s peppers, pears and apples for a few months this year, pricing them about 40 percent lower than their more traditional-looking counterparts. But after introducing the pilot program with much fanfare, the chain dropped it this fall. Store officials declined to comment for this article.
Jordan Figueiredo, a solid-waste specialist in nearby Castro Valley, began a social-media campaign promoting ugly produce this year. Each day, he sends out pictures — carrots joined at the hip, apples with ample middles, whatever strange-looking thing catches his fancy. He began a petition asking Wal-Mart and Whole Foods to commit to carrying ugly produce, but neither chain has signed on yet.
“There is a real chicken-and-an-egg problem, because retailers say they won’t sell this because people don’t buy it, and people say they want to buy it but retailers won’t sell it,” said Jonathan Bloom, who wrote “American Wasteland,” exploring why so much food is wasted in the U.S. From 1974 to 2006, wasted food in America increased by 50 percent, he said, adding that ugly produce was the “gateway drug” into the larger and more complicated problems around food waste generally.
“Most people really don’t view the oddities as better, and quite the opposite,” Bloom said. “There is still some deep-seated, visceral notion that things that look perfect won’t harm us.”
Imperfect Produce is just one of the ways that entrepreneurs and environmentalists are grappling with food waste, which is increasingly seen as a kind of epidemic. In Boston, the former president of Trader Joe’s has opened a market and prepared-food shop, called Daily Table, selling packaged food that has passed its “sell-by” date but is still safe (and tasty), and produce gleaned from local fields and orchards.
San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., have required household composting for years, and so do some other major cities, such as Seattle. In New York City, entire menus have been developed to limit food waste. A book published in September, “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook” by food scientist Dana Gunders, encourages home cooks to look for every chance to use a stalk that they might otherwise throw away.
“The main reason that food doesn’t get harvested is because it will not meet shelf-life requirements,” Gunders said. “Now there’s a lot of energy about wanting to increase access to good food and wanting to get more out of the earth.”
At Imperfect Produce, CEO Ben Simon and Ben Chesler, the chief operating officer, began their work on food waste as college students, when they saw trays of food from the campus cafeterias thrown out each night. Chesler and Simon created Food Recovery Network, which now has more than 100 colleges donating uneaten food to soup kitchens.
“We kept hearing how much food was left, even in the fields,” Chesler said. “We see this as a way of getting more people to eat more healthy food.”
The pair met Clark, who had spent more than a decade working to bring produce that would have otherwise gone to waste to California food banks. Using his relationship with suppliers, the three have created a business that has attracted attention from many of the tech luminaries in the region.
“They are offering a whimsical way to understanding how unreasonable our mainstream produce specifications are,” said Bloom, the “American Wasteland” author. “Anyone who has a backyard garden can understand that food grows in fun and funky ways — the notion that it is uniform is just a fallacy.”