But it's impossible to make all fresh food fruit and veggies grow a certain way. So, because not all produce meets grocery store standards, each year about 20 billion pounds of produce is left unsold or unharvested. San Francisco based company Imperfect Foods is looking to cut down on food waste by offering subscription-based grocery delivery of 'ugly' eats, and they recently expanded their services to the Pittsburgh region.
In addition to offering fruit and vegetables, Imperfect Foods has a selection of pantry items, as well as dairy and dairy-alternatives like eggs, butter, nuts, and coffee. When ordering a box, customers can pick and choose what they receive, making the subscription friendly for those with allergies or dietary restrictions.
Unsure of what to expect, for my first Imperfect Foods box, I said "send whatever" and that's exactly what they did. I got a mix of items: coffee, quinoa, almonds, cute little squashes, odd-shaped carrots, apples, kale, and a root vegetable the size of my head that was possibly a turnip and maybe a rutabaga. Inside the box was a sheet explaining how to properly store each item. (It turns out I was doing quite a few things wrong.) And while the food may have looked a little weird, it all tasted just as it should.
To find out more about Imperfect Foods and its expansion to Pittsburgh, I corresponded with CEO Philip Behn via email.
What exactly makes produce imperfect?
20 billion pounds of produce from farms is unharvested or unsold each year often because it doesn’t meet the strict cosmetic standards of grocery stores. These imperfections are often small quirks in appearance - too big, too small, too curvy, off color - that doesn’t impact the flavor or nutrition.
Beyond fruits and veggies, when perfectly good grocery items are close to expiration or going through packaging changes, grocers won’t purchase or stock those goods. Imperfect works with farmers, growers, and food purveyors to find a home for these “imperfect” items. At Imperfect Foods, we save this food from going to waste while passing on price savings to our customers.
Why the decision to expand to Pittsburgh? Does this include surrounding areas or just the city?
Our team is excited to expand to Pittsburgh to provide access to nutritional, affordable groceries for more people in the area and rally the community to join us in the fight against food waste. The community has already welcomed us warmly, and we’re in talks with local shops and restaurants across the city to see how we can work together to recover as much food as possible to fix our broken food system. We will be delivering to all Pittsburgh [area] zip codes and the surrounding area as part of this expansion!
When ordering food in Pittsburgh, where is the produce coming from?
Imperfect’s core tenet is to follow the waste. We source from local growers and farmers and our assortment varies depending on seasonality and availability. Since over 80% of the fresh produce in the U.S. is grown in California, this is where the majority of Imperfect’s fruits and vegetables are sourced. Similarly, our shelf-stable goods come from producers across the country with excess product.
What excites you the most about Imperfect Foods?
I joined the team during a time of exciting growth. Since our company started in 2015, we have saved 100 million pounds of food from going to waste. Now we are expanding our impact and reach on a national scale and into new food categories like dairy, protein, and groceries. We’re on track to make our biggest positive impact on the planet thus far this year. As we've grown, we've built deeper partnerships with nonprofits and local growers across the country and, together, we’re taking an even bigger bite out of food waste.
A box of fresh produce is amazing, but for a single person or couple, it can be hard to use all the food before it goes bad. Do you have any suggestions on how to utilize the produce as to not contribute to the wasted food problem Imperfect Food is trying to make better?
Absolutely! We love educating our customers on how to use the items in their Imperfect box, so share tips and tricks on our newsletter, blog, and on social media to make reducing food waste easy and stress-free. I recommend using our customization to your advantage - you can plan meals strategically and tailor boxes to include exactly what you need for the week. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for everyone to play a part in the fight against food waste.
Imperfect Foods (originally Imperfect Produce) received a lot of push back at first about it whether or not it was actually reducing waste. What has the company done to change that image, how has it evolved over time, and what kinds of practices (i.e. picking up old boxes) have been put in place to reduce its carbon footprint?
Imperfect was built to solve for food waste at a supply level, but as we’ve grown and connected with farmers and food partners, we’ve expanded our impact to help create change in other parts of our food system. By adding a full range of dairy, proteins, grains, beverages, and other pantry essentials, we’re tackling other areas of waste beyond the farm and also providing customers the added benefit of skipping an extra trip to the grocery store. We’ve recovered 100 [million] pounds of food from going to waste, but we still have a ways to go and know it will take partnership and collaboration across the industry to fix our broken food system. There is no silver bullet solution, but we’re proud of the work we’re doing to recover good food from going to waste and educate consumers about how they can make a difference.
In addition, reducing waste in our own supply chain has and will always be paramount, since we want to be a brand that truly lives and breathes our mission. We use minimal packaging (only when necessary) and ship deliveries in recyclable, cardboard boxes. We deliberately design our delivery routes to minimize carbon footprint and take cars and motorcycles off the roads. We developed a box reuse program that invites customers to return their clean, label-free, broken down boxes, which are then donated to local food bank partners. These food banks use thousands of boxes a month to transport packaged foods and until now, often had to buy brand new boxes to store their goods.