Updated: A vendor delivering fruits and vegetables at a 30 percent markdown over store prices has begun a Montgomery County service – but you’ll have to ignore aesthetics.
San Francisco-based Imperfect Produce launched in Montgomery County, Northern Virginia and the District last month, and now serves 15 cities across the country.
The company says it reduces food waste by purchasing “ugly” produce from more than 150 farmers and reselling it in custom boxes shipped weekly.
Asymmetrical peppers, scarred oranges and twin mushrooms would normally end up in a landfill or left to die in a field, rejected by grocery stores, but Imperfect is working to get them onto dinner plates.
“Hopefully it’s a pipeline to get as much of that food as possible out of that field and into people’s fridges across the country,” CEO Ben Simon said.
Simon, a Silver Spring native, started the company in August 2015 after successfully running the nonprofit Food Recovery Network while he was a student at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Seeking to eliminate waste in campus dining halls, the network provided 30,000 meals to hunger-fighting groups in its first year of operation. The nonprofit has chapters in 230 schools across the country.
Imperfect has recovered 40 million pounds of produce so far, and Simon expects to bring in between 200,000 and 300,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables just in Montgomery County by the end of the year.
He declined to disclose the company’s revenues.
Simon said there are a few ugly produce competitors in the industry, most notably Hungry Harvest, another company he co-founded.
Based in Baltimore, Hungry Harvest secured a deal on the business pitch show “Shark Tank” in July 2015 and serves nine states. Simon said the group is a friend and ally, but mentioned Imperfect offers a wider variety of produce.
More than 1,000 residents have signed up for the service, which offers four boxes of varying sizes and a menu of around 60 items. Produce is priced individually, default boxes are created each week and customers can then mix and match items to fit their preferences.
“[We’re] giving people a lot of the same perks of a grocery shopping experience, but at the same time that 30 percent discount really does help people save a lot of money,” Simon said.
The smallest box — around eight pounds of produce — is priced at $11 to $13, and the largest box is about 24 pounds and costs $25 to $27. There’s also a $4.99 flat delivery fee, and organic items are a bit more expensive.
A Natural Resources Defense Council report from 2012 and updated in 2017 found about 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. is wasted.
Americans throw out more than 400 pounds of food per person annually, less than one-third of which could feed the 42 million Americans facing food insecurity, the report stated.
“In our diverse nation of 322 million people, wasting food emerges as an embarrassing unifier,” the report stated. “No matter our age, gender, economic status, or education level, we all waste food.”
Imperfect supports food banks in the areas it operates and has 70 nonprofit partners. The company offers a reduced-cost box for those who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and 10,000 families have taken advantage.
Imperfect will add between 20 and 25 living wage jobs at its Rockville distribution site, including full benefits and an ownership stake. Simon expects to reach 4,000 to 5,000 customers in the county by the end of the year.
“Our vision at Imperfect is really to be a vehicle to recover as much food as possible,” Simon said. “We’re trying to do it on a scale that the issue of food waste is taking place on.”
This story was updated to include new information from the company about how many cities it serves.