The supermarket produce aisle is a beauty competition. Filled with plump berries, cartoonesque carrots and blemish-free bananas, it promises a world in which every fruit and vegetable is given the chance to grow into a picturesque representative of itself.
That kind of superficial perfection has spoiled us, however, to the point where some shoppers reject a piece of produce if it has a minor bruise or if it’s the last in stock. Real produce doesn’t always look like it was copied from a children’s illustration. Real carrots have curves. And our insistence on aesthetic produce can add up to a lot of waste. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimated in 2012 that the United States wastes nearly half of the food it produces, for example. Even recovering 15 percent of that would mean greater food security for about 25 million Americans.
Enter Imperfect Produce, Misfits Market, and Hungry Harvest, three startups that aim to capitalize on America’s food waste problem. These subscription companies promise to deliver quality produce at a fraction of the cost customers would usually pay at Whole Foods, Kroger or Safeway. The catch: the fruits and veggies might look a little wonky. These companies also only operate in limited locations; Misfits Market and Hungry Harvest largely deliver to cities and states on the East Coast, and Imperfect Produce has yet to arrive in most Southern locales or in a large portion of the midwest. But if you have access to their services, you can buy a box of food that, once chopped and prepared, will taste just as good as its supermarket counterparts. For those living in urban areas without a car, like me, the delivery service can also save time and money that would otherwise be spent hauling groceries home on public transportation. Overall, ugly produce services seem like a potential way to score good food at a lower price, and arguably help reduce food waste at the same time.
For this taste test, I tried out Imperfect Produce’s medium mixed produce box, which advertised 11 to 13 pounds of organic and non-organic fruits and veggies at a cost of between $14 and $16. Like Hungry Harvest, Imperfect Produce lets you customize what you receive a few days before it ships out, so my family nixed the beets and green peppers in favor of grapes and garlic.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, Imperfect Produce also allows its customers to buy overstocked dry goods and dairy products, which is where the customization process really gets dangerous. While swapping out our undesired veggies, we managed to add $50 to a box that would have been $20 with shipping. However, the additions allowed us to get several one-pot pasta meals, as well as snacks and coffee, so the upcharge felt worth it.
Once our box arrived, I was surprisingly underwhelmed by the produce’s relative lack of ugliness. The carrots were gnarly, the zucchinis were scarred, and the pears and apples perhaps undersized, but everything else looked fairly standard. And the delivered quantity was far more than I was expecting. For a family of two or three, a medium box every other week is likely more than enough, but the company allows for weekly delivery if you go through fruits and veggies particularly fast.
So far this week, I’ve made a Spanish omelette and leek risotto with the contents of my box. I’m also planning to make some jalapeño popper bread, and I’ve snacked on a couple of honeycrisp apples. I haven’t figured out my game plan for all of the produce I’ve received yet, but that’s part of the fun. If nothing else, the subscription has prompted me to think about how I can add vegetables or fruits to my standard meals.
Like its competitors, Imperfect Produce’s biggest drawback is that it is not yet truly available nationwide. Selling ugly fruit is also not a silver bullet solution to food waste, since the majority of food is thrown away at home and not at the farm. These subscription boxes could additionally encourage consumers to abandon more established local sources of fresh fruit, like farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture. Still, if a consumer is not already buying local, these startups could serve as a stepping stone. Subscribing to an ugly fruit start up might also acclimate customers to eating less than aesthetic fruit, as well as force them to reexamine how much waste comes from their own pantry.