Ben Simon: Imperfect Produce May Be the Bay Area’s Perfect Solution

Ben Simon: Imperfect Produce May Be the Bay Area’s Perfect Solution
From, by Caitlin Troutt

Imagine if you could get fresh, local produce delivered right to your doorstep for a lower price than you would pay at the grocery store, and help fight food waste at the same time. Imperfect, a new project from the founders of Food Recovery Network (FRN), will provide that very service, launching in central California and hopefully growing nationwide. Food Tank recently had the chance to discuss the project with one of the founders, Ben Simon.

Food Tank (FT): What is the vision for Imperfect, and how do you plan to work toward this vision?

Ben Simon (BS): The vision for Imperfect is to become America’s first major consumer brand for ugly produce. We’ve heard a lot about ugly produce….But even now, in 2015, we still have no mainstream way for U.S. consumers to get their hands on ugly produce.

Imperfect is changing that by offering consumers a chance to buy ugly produce for [a] 30 to 50 percent discount on what grocery stores are charging. We’re doing that a few different ways. Our core model—that I’m most excited about—is offering consumers a home delivery option similar to a CSA. It’s a weekly produce subscription service where consumers pay US$12 for 10 to 15 pounds of produce delivered somewhere in their community each week, and for an extra US$3 delivery fee they can have it delivered directly to their doorstep. The point here is basically to find a home for this ugly produce in people’s fridges so that it doesn’t have to go to waste.

FT: How has your work with Food Recovery Network contributed to the creation of Imperfect?

BS: Through FRN I’ve grown passionate about fighting food waste and also food insecurity. The genesis of the idea came out of a conversation I was having with Jonathan Bloom—author and expert on food waste—about two years ago. One of the first things I did was try to discover where the issue was largest and where entrepreneurs could make the greatest difference. I asked Jonathan about the no. 1 place where food is going to waste, where it could be instead going to feed people. He said that, without a doubt, it’s farms. Learning more about the issue, I discovered that 20 percent of produce grown on farms never makes it off the farm due to tiny cosmetic issues.

Understanding that, I also knew from my work with FRN that one of the biggest needs for food is fresh produce....It clicked for me that this was an opportunity for me to meet a need with an excess of supply and connect the dots. It also connected me with Ron Clark, who is my co-founder on the supply side. Ron has previously built out an organization called Farm to Family through the California Association of Food Banks. Farm to Family sources 125 million pounds of ugly produce per year to food banks in the state of California. Ron already has the supply chain, and it was really exciting to link up the FRN story and focus with Ben Chesler—my co-founder of FRN, who is also going to be a co-founder of Imperfect—with what Ron is doing to connect the dots and create this awesome effort to sell ugly produce.

FT: How is the Imperfect distribution model unique?

BS: We are really the first company to tap into the immense amount of supply in the Central Valley of California and get it straight to consumers. Our model includes buying produce directly from 70 to 80 growers in the Central Valley, having that shipped to our warehouse in Oakland, and then delivering it to people’s doorsteps. Nobody else is doing anything similar right now.

FT: Food waste has clear environmental impacts, but it is also a social justice issue. How will Imperfect work toward a more just food system?

BS: First and foremost, food waste is one of the largest issues in America and in our food system....In terms of the social side, Ron, Ben, and myself all have backgrounds in fighting hunger and food insecurity, so providing fresh access to produce in underserved communities is top on our list. We’re providing a subsidized model for our weekly produce delivery service. Underserved, low-income zip codes in Oakland and Berkeley receive a major discount on weekly produce delivery…so we’re opening the floodgates for this fresh produce and directly building distribution lines to low-income communities and food deserts. We’re also in the process of registering for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) right now to be SNAP-eligible, so that food assistance recipients can use their SNAP dollars toward buying Imperfect produce.

FT: What can Food Tank readers do in their own communities to fight food waste?

BS: In terms of connecting to what we’re doing at Imperfect, since there are very few to no retailers selling ugly produce, if they have contacts in Oakland or Berkeley or live in Oakland or Berkeley themselves, they can sign up at our website to be some of our first customers for our home delivery of ugly produce. We also have an Indiegogo fundraising campaign, so if anyone wants to be a part of bringing a major brand of ugly produce distribution to the United States, they can support us through our Indiegogo campaign and win cool perks like t-shirts and signed books.

In general, for anyone wanting to support ugly produce they can look for it at their farmers markets, and…at the grocery store—even if it’s not the Imperfect brand—they can just look for the produce items that look like no one else wants them. They might have some tiny cosmetic issue, but they’re still fine. So they can fight food waste at the local level by their consumer choices.

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