Could the Ugly Produce Movement Have an Ugly Truth?

Could the Ugly Produce Movement Have an Ugly Truth?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, one third of Earth’s produce is never consumed and 2.9 trillion pounds of food are wasted worldwide annually. A fairly large contributor to this issue falls on supermarkets and their rather strict aesthetic standards for fresh produce.  This means when a fruit or vegetable has a deformed shape or any slight bruising, despite being unspoiled, supermarkets will often turn these food items away. This is especially an issue in the U.S. where 40% of unspoiled food is wasted every year.

Here is where the ugly produce movement comes into play.

These startling figures have fueled lots of discussions across the world all in search of a solution to not only prevent perfectly nutritious food from going to waste, but to also have an opportunity for new businesses.  One of the most well-known pioneers in the ugly produce movement is a company called Imperfect Produce that works out of California.

Imperfect Produce buys up “ugly” produce from large agribusinesses and sells them for 30-50% less than grocery store prices through a subscription box program.  Founders Ben Simon and Ben Chelser actually started this movement back in 2011 when they launched the Food Recovery Network which was created to recover leftover food from campus dining halls.  As the two founders succeeded with their campus food waste mission, they continued to look for ways to make a larger impact on the food waste issue. And they found that niche with supermarket rejected odd-shaped and odd-colored produce on farms all over the country.

After reading about all the good things Imperfect Produce has done and is continuing to do to help the large food waste issue, it is hard to imagine anything negative could come from their work and mission.

Now enter Phat Beets Produce, an American nonprofit dedicated to food justice based out of North Oakland, California.

Phat Beets Produce predominantly works with small farmers of color as well as young entrepreneurs through a variety of youth programs and through a community service agriculture (CSA) enterprise called BeetBox CSA that links local farmers to consumers in low-income neighborhoods.  In 2015, Phat Beets Produce received an email from Imperfect Produce expressing interest in partnering together while supporting the work that Phat Beets Produce is already doing.

Although intrigued by the email, Phat Beets Produce continued their nonprofit work while supporting their youth groups and BeetBox CSA.  And just three years later, with a 30-percent drop in customers, BeetBox CSA realized they were being out-competed by no other than the venture-capital funded company Imperfect Produce.  Phat Beets Produce saw a different side to Imperfect Produce that wasn’t seen or advertised to the public.  Imperfect Produce was commodifying agribusiness’ food waste and had little to do with supporting the community.

BeetBox CSA supports small farmers of color that farm in areas usually under 50 acres.  The profits made by BeetBox CSA allowed Phat Beets Produce to supply produce to under-resourced neighborhoods, support free community meal programs, and supply free fruit to a number of youth programs. Through Phat Beets Produce and revenue made by BeetBox CSA, they were also able to provide food for the Self-Help Free Produce Stand and the Rx Prescription Veggie Voucher Program at Children’s Hospital in Oakland.  They were also able to provide free home delivery for EBT/SNAP/food stamp customers. But this all changed after the arrival of Imperfect Produce.

Imperfect Produce has an incredible marketing strategy using eye-catching fliers that were spread everywhere in the Bay Area where BeetBox was located.  From pitches being made at community meetings to Facebook advertisements for all to see, Imperfect Produce made quite the impact.

Although what has happened to BeetBox CSA and consequently to the nonprofit Phat Beets Produce seems like just a simple example of a smaller local business being out-competed by a larger business, the story is obviously much more complex.  As mentioned earlier, Imperfect Produce claims to being doing great things for the planet by reducing the food waste while also helping farmers’ businesses.  Looking at this concept alone, Imperfect Produce shouldn’t be completely discounted from making an impact on the huge and very multifaceted issue that is food waste.

A valid point Phat Beets Produce raises is about the food that would normally go to foodbanks.  A lot of this ugly produce that is now being bought out in large amounts by Imperfect Produce is cutting into the supply of fresh produce that would normally go to foodbanks to be redistributed for free to people in need.  Furthermore, on Imperfect Produce’s website they state that California Food Banks only take 150,000 pounds per year of produce from California’s farmers as a donation, when actually the California Association of Food Banks says it receives and redistributes 165 million pounds of produce each year.

So, is Imperfect Produce inadvertently furthering gentrification of the food system?  Phat Beets Produce emphasizes an unfortunate trend arising from the commodifying Imperfect Produce is doing and that trend is the undermining of local, small-scale farmers and food justice initiatives.  Imperfect Produce has instead created a market for the waste, targeting conscious buyers rather than humans in desperate need of branding themselves as environmental activists.

In an interview with U.S. News & World Report, Ben Simon of Imperfect Produce mentioned how they can only afford to work with farms of at least midsize that can produce enough volume of produce for it all to make sense, thus leaving out the smaller farms.  Imperfect Produce does donate their leftovers to nonprofits and foodbanks, but some would argue they have in turn created another market for agribusiness’ systemic overproduction.

The different sides to this ugly produce movement are undoubtedly complicated and it can be difficult to fully take a stance one way or another.  Solely looking at Imperfect Produce (taking nutritious food that is normally thrown out and selling it to consumers at a discounted price) can easily be seen as just a great business idea that benefits a wide range of people. But looking at this movement from the sides Phat Beets Produce has brought to the forefront, the obvious downsides to small farmers and poor communities losing out cannot be denied.

As nice as it would be to say there is a simple answer to the food waste issue in the U.S. and around the world, that is simply not the case.  What is happening in California with these companies is a prime example of how intricate tackling worldly issues can be, even when a company has seemingly good motives.

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