BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
If your garden produces a potato that looks like a foot, a tomato with a face or carrots with legs, you might Instagram photos of your ugly vegetables, then put them into the cooking pot.
But 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 unsold each year and thrown away.
In July, Imperfect Produce out of California opened a packaging plant in Newark, boxing up local imperfect fruits and veggies at affordable prices (starting at $12), while expanding their efforts to fight food waste and create a better food system.
As a student at the University of Maryland, Ben Simon noticed that a lot of food was going to waste in the cafeteria. In response, he founded the Food Recovery Network (FRN), a nonprofit dedicated to preventing waste on college campuses. In 2015, he and Ben Chesler decided together they could make an even bigger impact by sourcing ‘ugly’ produce directly from farms and delivering it at a discount to customers’ homes. While FRN was still going strong on campuses, the two Bens joined forces and founded Imperfect Produce, with the hopes of helping local farmers and reducing food waste, according to a press release.
Imperfect sources “ugly” and surplus produce directly from farms and delivers it to customers’ doors instead of it going to waste. Imperfect is now delivering to Montclairites who are saving this produce from going to waste. They have recovered 40 million pounds of produce since launching in 2015, the company says.
“It’s full of produce I never would have hand-picked in-store,” said Montclair resident Devon Kelly, an Imperfect subscriber who receives her box each Friday.
Gray Russell, the township’s sustainability officer, said that in Montclair, which is already served by the Montclair Farmers’ Market, Montclair Community Farms, several successful Community Supported Agriculture systems, and a robust home gardening movement, the ugly food concept could quickly sprout up and blossom here.
“I am certainly in favor of reducing wasted food, and the concept of picking out cosmetically ‘ugly’ produce to get it to customers is not a new one, and it is one I definitely support,” said Russell.
Montclair resident Shakila Majid, who likes to buy locally sourced, seasonal produce began getting her “ugly” produce this summer in the hopes of reducing food waste.
“The idea of reducing food wastage certainly drew me to the service. Being able to view all that’s on offer has pushed me to try produce I may not have purchased at the store,” Majid said. “It has added variety to our diets.”
The company also offers off-spec, items such as scarred nuts and wonky cereal bits, or surplus items like cranberries in recent years. Customers can also pick from shelf items such as lentils, flour and quinoa.
Majid said she purchased unsweetened coconut shavings from the service, as opposed to the more commonly found shreds in the grocery stores.
“Certain types of food can fall through the cracks of our food system if it doesn’t meet the strict specifications set by the buyer,” said an Imperfect spokesperson. “Many of these variances are caused by the way the food is harvested or packaged.”
The company has expanded their plants to 25 cities delivering to hundreds of cities and recovering 32 million pounds of food in the past year.
Company officials said if 2,500 residents in Montclair get Imperfect, they can recover 26,450 pounds of produce each week and more than 1 million pounds of produce a year.
In every city Imperfect Produce operates in, it works closely with local food banks. Since 2015, Imperfect Produce has donated over 2.2 million pounds of produce to over 91 nonprofit partners and food banks.