Imperfect Foods sells 'ugly produce' that would otherwise go to waste — here's how it works

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  • Imperfect Foods is a service that delivers seasonal, cosmetically imperfect produce at affordable prices. 
  • It markets itself as a solution to food waste, but there are debates about whether this is disingenuous given the complexity of the nation’s food system. 
  • Still, it’s a convenient and affordable way to get your weekly produce but with one caveat — if you live in a city where it’s available. 
  • I used Imperfect Foods for six months while living in the Bay Area and loved receiving a box of “ugly” but fresh and seasonable vegetables and fruits every two weeks.

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What is Imperfect Foods?

I got the title because I excitedly worked the San Francisco-based grocery delivery service into every conversation possible. The concept — seasonal, cosmetically imperfect produce delivered to your house at affordable prices, as part of a larger mission of reducing food waste — intrigued me, so I tried my first box and became hooked right away. 

The quality of the produce was great and everything always tasted delicious. I didn’t have to wait on the very unreliable buses in Berkeley to take me to and from the grocery store, and the total bill was reasonable even on a student budget.

Plus, little ol’ me felt like I was saving these poor fruits and vegetables from being thrown away and wasted, helping the bottom lines of local farmers and producers. 

Since its inception, Imperfect Foods has expanded its offerings to include grains like rice and quinoa, dairy like eggs and milk, and canned goods. Amid current travel restrictions in spring 2020 due to the novel coronavirus, it also offered airline snacks like Biscoff cookies normally handed out on Delta flights and cheese and snack boxes usually available on JetBlue flights. 

Does buying cosmetically imperfect produce help the food system?

There has been some pushback against the idea that services such as Imperfect Foods and its competitor Misfits Market actually solve a problem in the country’s complex and broken food system.

As crop scientist Sarah Taber explains, the problem of “ugly produce” contributing to food waste might not actually exist, because those items will be turned into other food products such as soups and jams. While ugly produce companies may improve access to fresh food and help the margins of growers, they may divert attention and resources away from community organizations in low-income areas. 

Knowing what I do now, I’m warier of how ugly produce companies frame and market themselves. However, the ongoing conversations among food system experts and scientists, farmers, and the companies themselves don’t change my positive experiences with using Imperfect Foods as an affordable way to get my groceries.

For what it’s worth, community-supported agriculture (CSA) efforts like co-ops are full of local produce if you’re able to carry heavy boxes home easily, but for city dwellers, this can be tough to do. Farmers’ markets might not be available in your area or operate during times you can shop. The major advantage of Imperfect Foods is that you can order online and produce is delivered directly to your home.

What makes an imperfect fruit or vegetable?

Imperfect Foods defines “imperfect” in several ways: cosmetic damage, surplus or excess inventory, undervalued or lack of demand, or doesn’t meet a strict specification from the buyer, usually in the way it’s harvested or packaged.  

A significant portion of the country’s produce is grown in California, so the majority of Imperfect’s fruits and vegetables come from there. It says it tries to source locally when possible, but sourcing ultimately depends on seasonality and availability. In total, it works with over 200 growers nationwide and sources most of its produce (78%) from family farms or cooperatives. 

For produce with cosmetic damage, Imperfect checks quality to make sure it’s only the shape, size, or color that’s affected. It says, “To end up in your box, a piece of produce must be just as fresh, tasty, and nutritious (if not more so!) as its grocery store counterpart.” 

How to order from Imperfect Foods

Imperfect offers a variety of different “default” boxes, which you can then further customize the contents.

To start, choose from a box of all fruit, all veggie, mixed fruit and veggie, or organic. Then choose the box size and the shipping frequency. I usually ordered a medium-sized mixed fruit and veggie box, to be delivered every two weeks.

Below is an example of one of my orders. 

The fruits and veggies in your box are preset based on seasonal availability, but you can take out or add more of any item. 

Though some people might not like the limited selection when compared to a traditional grocery store, I liked this design more than I expected. I can get in the habit of buying the same, predictable produce every time I go grocery shopping, so to be faced with preset, limited options was actually a fun challenge that added more variety and creativity to my cooking.

It also helped me enjoy fruits and veggies at their peak seasonality, and thus, their peak taste. When I had dozens of options, seasonal and non-seasonal, at my disposal at the local grocery store, I sometimes found myself gravitating towards my favorite produce, regardless of whether it was the optimal time to purchase and eat it. 

The quality of the produce from Imperfect Foods

The quality of the produce I received was consistently good. Many of the physical imperfections weren’t even that drastic, and they didn’t affect the ultimate taste of the fruit or vegetable.

Prior to using Imperfect Foods, I didn’t love the idea of not having control over the exact apple or carrot I’d be eating, but I eventually realized it was futile to be nitpicky about how beautiful my produce was. I learned firsthand from Imperfect Foods that it all tasted the same.  

The price of produce with Imperfect Foods

Depending on which size box you get, you’ll be paying $11 to $27 for seven to 25 pounds of produce. The price for everything in my medium boxes was usually around $15, which was about the same, if not less, than how much I was paying for the same amount of produce from my local grocery store at the time.

The plus, however, is that it was delivered safely to my door so I didn’t have to spend time and energy grocery shopping in person. This combination of convenience, price, and produce quality (despite the physical imperfections) was why I told anyone who would listen to try Imperfect Foods. 

Availability of the service

Imperfect Foods is currently available in the Midwest, Northeast, all along the West Coast, and in most of the West South Central region.  

The bottom line

If you’re in a region in which Imperfect Food delivers, I couldn’t recommend the service and produce more. It’s a convenient way to get fresh fruit and veggies that have the same nutritional value and taste like something you’d find in your local grocery store. 

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