Combating Food Waste: The Story of Imperfect Foods
One of my absolute favorite brands these days is San Francisco-based Imperfect Foods…not only because it is combating food waste and enabling fresh food accessibility across America, but because it is refreshingly inclusive and just plain FUN!
Back in 2017, I experienced the brand in action. After discovering the company from a super knowledgable young man at my local nursery and signing up for a biweekly subscription, I ran into the field team again at a music festival in Lake Tahoe a few months later. A friendly guy dressed as a carrot was dancing around, spreading the word about food waste and encouraging folks to try out Imperfect’s produce box. In fact, for posting this picture on Instagram, the company donated five pounds of produce to communities in need:
So, I can think of no better fit to kick off my Inspiring Stories series than with Imperfect Foods!
I recently connected with Reilly Brock, Brand Storytelling Manager, to learn more about the company. We dove in deep on the inception of the brand, its mission, growth, current priorities, and future plans.
Here is the story of Imperfect Foods…
Discovering Food Waste
As an undergrad in 2011, Ben Simon and his classmates at University of Maryland, College Park observed that dining hall food was ending up in the trash each night. Quickly they began taking action, recovering the unused food and donating it to DC-area nonprofits fighting hunger within the community.
By the end of the school year they had salvaged 30,000 meals, and Food Recovery Network (FRN) was born.
Over at Brown University, student Ben Chesler heard about FRN. He came to meet Ben Simon at UM and get involved, with an eye on helping scale the program.
During the spring semester of 2012, Brown University founded the second FRN chapter. Soon University of California, Berkeley and Pomona College followed suit. Fast forward to today, FRN continues to thrive with 30 chapters this year.
But Ben and Ben were just getting started…
The Inception of Imperfect
Ben and Ben had exposed the waste of college cafeteria food and were tackling it head on. “But as you often do in college, you start to tackle one issue and realize it’s part of a bigger issue. As they talked to more people, they learned that there is even more wasted food you aren’t seeing because it doesn’t leave the farms,” Reilly explains.
This led them out to California, where they validated that, indeed, a ton of food was going to waste at farms. In fact, it’s no secret that about 40% of food goes uneaten in America. A big reason for this is that farmers are unable to harvest and sell up to a third of their produce because it doesn’t look “perfect”. Although misshapen or blemished, the food is still perfectly delicious and nutritious.
Again, Ben and Ben sprung into action. They founded Imperfect Produce in August 2015 to find a good home for “ugly” fruits and vegetables. Their mission? Eliminate food waste and build a better food system for everyone.
Food Waste Beyond Produce
While building and expanding the produce business across America, the company was also learning about other types of food waste. “We learned that there was a ton of food going unused that wasn’t just limited to farms…perfectly good packaged food was being wasted and we could really be part of recovering that,” Reilly said. So in 2017, Imperfect added shelf-stable groceries to their offering.
Packaged food waste happens for four main reasons:
- Old/discontinued packaging—Unusable inventory is an issue when a company rebrands. For example, when Bob’s Red Mill developed more sustainable packaging, Imperfect took all the old inventory.
- Expiration or “best by” dates a few months away—”Retail stores are a little paranoid to take these items even though these dates are a bit arbitrary… really just a suggestion, and not food safety dates,” Reilly elaborates.
- Off-spec/cosmetically imperfect—Imperfect has recovered items like scarred almonds, smaller coffee beans, and broken brown rice.
- Excess inventory—Either because of higher supply than demand or because buyers decreased their orders.
Creating a One-stop Shop
As Imperfect was growing, customer feedback was becoming clear. They loved the imperfect produce and pantry items, but if they could get food from all the grocery aisles, they could skip the store and order all their groceries together.
“This made tons of sense in creating a delightful, helpful customer experience, but also from an environmental standpoint. There’s a ton of research that individual trips to the store may not be the most efficient way to shop. Having a one-stop shop delivery model—assuming you have dense routes, which we do—reduces the overall emissions of grocery shopping,” explains Reilly.
So in the summer of 2019, Imperfect expanded it’s service and added refrigerated food to the mix, like dairy, plant-based dairy substitutes, dips, and beverages. Shortly after, in the fall of 2019, the brand added protein: meat, seafood, and plant-based protein.
Imperfect was very conscious of providing options for everyone, from omnivores to herbivores. To their surprise, the plant-based alternatives were huge sellers from the start. In fact, when they launched dairy and saw the plant-based alternatives exceed expectations, this success informed the protein launch. “We didn’t just include a token tofu, but really doubled down with options like jackfruit, seitan, a variety of tofus, burgers, and more. People speak with what they buy,” Reilly highlights.
With this expansion, Imperfect chose to partner with like-minded brands that are building a better food system as well. And while these categories are not generally “imperfect”, they recover unsellable items when available, like meat cuts/portions that restaurants won’t buy.
Imperfect Produce Becomes Imperfect Foods
With all of this change, Imperfect Produce rebranded in the fall of 2019 to become Imperfect Foods. The tagline: “Groceries on a Mission”.
“We realized that to deliver on a bigger part of food waste and to be a more meaningful part of our customer’s lives, we had to offer the groceries they rely on along with the the healthy, seasonal produce they want, without having to compromise on budget or values. We’re proving that doing the right thing for the planet doesn’t have to cost more. And, that shopping for quality ingredients can support the people and resources it takes to grow our favorite foods.”
In addition to expanding the food offering, Imperfect Foods launched it’s own line of branded groceries to make a bigger impact on the food system and provide customers with their favorite staples at a great price.
The brand also launched a new content site, The Whole Carrot, to share recipes, articles, and tips like the food storage guide. Plus, Imperfect now has a podcast, Unwasted, which tackles all things food, minimizing waste, and sustainability (hosted by Reilly!).
Improving Accessibility to Fresh Food
Core to Imperfect’s mission is improving the food system for everyone. Food deserts are all too real in America, especially in major metro areas like South L.A., where grocery stores simply don’t exist within a convenient traveling distance.
Imperfect Foods addresses accessibility in a few ways. First, the delivery model itself provides fresh food to your doorstep. Now nationwide, they deliver to over 80% of the U.S. Check here to see if they deliver to your area.
Next, the company offers a Reduced Cost Box Program for customers that meet the income qualifications for SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program). The reduced box is 33% off for each order.
Third, Imperfect works with over 100 nonprofit organizations nationwide to donate thousands of pounds of excess food each week. They have donated over 5 million pounds to date!
Finally, they have created the Feeding Change Fund, which provides small grants to nonprofits in the U.S. that are working to improve the food system.
The brand’s food recovery mission has taken on a new significance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Imperfect Foods is working to source items that might have otherwise gone to waste due to the huge disruptions to the restaurant, airline, and cruise industries. Imperfect’s flexible sourcing has created new opportunities for customers and the food system as a whole during these challenging times.
In addition, the company is temporarily pivoting The Feeding Change Fund to help support emergency food distribution efforts. If you are an organization in need of aid right now, click here.
Committed to Advancing Racial Justice
In addition to fighting food waste, Imperfect Foods is committed to advancing racial justice now more than ever. The company is sharing resources that amplify black voices and dedicating time for employee education. They are expanding the Reduced Cost Box program to support black, indigenous, and people of color disproportionately impacted by food insecurity and COVID-19. Imperfect is also making financial donations to NAACP and Appetite for Change.
How a subscription Works
When you sign up for a subscription with Imperfect Foods, your box is totally customizable to fit your needs. First, you choose the plan that works for you, like conventional or organic, box size (s/m/l), and weekly or biweekly.
Next, the online system queues produce into your box based on your plan. Five days before your delivery, you receive an email to customize your box. Then, you can log in and edit the produce from your box, plus add pantry, refrigerated, and meats/plant-based items. If you only want produce, that’s cool too.
Within your selections, you can clearly see if the item is imperfect or not, and how (surplus, blemish, misshapen, etc), and where the product is from.
I can say from experience that the process is not only easy but FUN, especially when discovering new foods that are hard to find at my local stores. In fact, the shopping process is so seamless that I often broadly meal plan at the same time!
To learn more about subscriptions and get 20% off your first order, go to Imperfect Foods.
Imperfect Foods Today
In eight short years, Imperfect Foods has grown from 4,000 customers to over 200,000. The company is nationwide, available in more than 80% of the U.S.
What is on the horizon? Expansion into some final key U.S. markets like Metro South (Florida and Georgia) and the Rockies (Denver). While these future customers and farms anxiously await it’s arrival, Imperfect Foods is expanding carefully. Specifically, it’s creating new centralized hubs to ensure the food, especially produce, reaches customers quickly to maintain great quality and an overall awesome customer experience.
Today, co-founder Ben Chesler runs the innovation department at the company. Co-founder Ben Simon led Imperfect as CEO until fall 2019, when he retired to focus on himself and his health.
It was a delight to get to know Imperfect Foods more intimately throughout this process. And while not exclusively plant-based, Imperfect’s mission to eliminate food waste and create better accessibility to fresh food naturally lends itself to having more plants on everyone’s plate. Surely a win-win-win for the planet, the animals, and our health💚. As Reilly said to me during our interview, “What Plant-Powered Livin’ is out for is analogous to what we’re doing, and we would love to help share the enthusiasm.”
I encourage y’all to check them out! Our family absolutely loves our biweekly box. In fact, the kiddos argue over who gets to open, unpack, and discover the goodies inside😋
An Imperfect Box also made the list of Ways to Go Greener at Home! To learn more about the company or to see if they deliver to your area, go to www.imperfectfoods.com. And I welcome your feedback as well! Feel free to email me or comment below.