November 21, 2018

Imperfect, yes, but it cuts waste and can save you some green

Imperfect Produce, a Bay Area company that delivers slightly less-attractive fruits and vegetables to people’s homes in an effort to reduce food waste, has come to Los Angeles, hoping it has a ripe opportunity to grow in the Southern California market.

Its mission is consistent with the Jewish prohibition against wasting food — known as “bal tashchit” (don’t destroy) — that comes from the book of Deuteronomy (20:19-20). When laying siege to a city, the Israelites are expressly forbidden to wantonly destroy trees, especially fruit-bearing ones. Contemporary rabbis, thinkers and eco-activists have extrapolated from this text that the prohibition would apply not just to fruit trees but to the unnecessary waste or destruction of any natural resources.

While that verse wasn’t the core inspiring principle for Imperfect Produce, its co-founder and COO Ben Chesler admitted in a phone interview with the Jewish Journal that “it was definitely my Jewish mother who instilled in me the value of not wasting food. I remember everything getting repurposed in our house — breakfast to lunch, lunch to dinner, dinner to lunch the next day. We even washed Ziploc bags and reused them.”

In an email, the company’s co-founder and CEO, Ben Simon, credited a program called Panim el Panim, in which he participated during high school, as something that “helped encourage me to get more involved in social justice as a way of exploring my Jewish faith.”

In college, friends Chesler and Simon discovered college dining hall food going to waste while people in the community went hungry. At the University of Maryland, Simon co-founded the Food Recovery Network (FRN), which took surplus food from universities and donated it to hungry people. Chesler, at Brown University, co-founded FRN’s second chapter. The experience of working in this space gave them what Chesler called “insight into the food-waste world. We started thinking about how to have a bigger impact. We realized we have to look at the farms.”

About 20 percent of the produce in the United States — about 3 billion pounds in California alone — goes to waste every year, according to information on the Imperfect Produce website (

“It takes 26 gallons of water to grow one pound of tomatoes, 70 gallons of water to grow one pound of lemons, and over 140 gallons of water to produce one pound of avocados. When food goes to waste, we end up wasting all of that water, too. Experts estimate that in the U.S., food waste loses us 172 billion dollars every year in wasted water, or nearly 1/4 of our water supply,” the company states in a blog post titled “The Scary Face of Food Waste.” 

Imperfect Produce calls its fruits and vegetables “wonky” or “ugly.” They have been rejected by supermarkets and other buyers, not due to lesser taste or freshness but because they aren’t as beautiful or shapely as supermarkets require.

Imperfect Produce boasts that its customers have kept more than 2 million pounds of food from going to waste, representing 103 million gallons of water not wasted and 6.1 million pounds of carbon dioxide that was kept out of the atmosphere.

When the company began in the Bay Area in August 2015, it delivered 150 boxes of produce in the first month. Within six months, it had delivered 1,000 boxes. Then the company grew rapidly: It now delivers 6,000 to 6,500 boxes a week in San Francisco, with 90 percent of the produce coming from California farmers. It currently has 30 to 40 full-time employees who work out of its distribution center in a Bay Area warehouse.

Imperfect Produce started delivery in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, bringing boxes to 650 customers in an area that Chesler describes as “one-tenth or one-twentieth of L.A. County.”

Chesler said most of the produce the company had been delivering came from growers located closer to Los Angeles than the Bay Area, with a few in Mexico, so the company is still working with the same growers for its L.A. customers. In general, Imperfect Produce works with larger growers because they produce more waste and can handle the volume the company needs to fill orders.

An East L.A. company, California Specialty Farms, packs the boxes for Los Angeles customers and a local team of drivers makes the deliveries.

The type of produce that can be ordered varies from week to week, depending on availability. Customers have the option of ordering either conventional or organic produce. Of the first L.A. shipments, 53 percent were organic and 47 percent were conventionally grown, Chesler said.

“Our goal is to make produce more affordable for everyone, but some people still struggle,” Chesler said.

Part of the company’s social mission, he said, is to expand access to fresh produce, selling it at a 33 percent discount to customers who qualify for CalFresh, part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As they place their orders, lower-income customers can complete a quick survey to determine eligibility. Although technically customers can’t use food stamps or SNAP benefits online, Chesler said, “If you qualify, we will give you that discount. We don’t make money on that box, but that’s important to us too.”

Beyond providing discounted boxes to those who need it, Imperfect Produce is committed to serving the local community. In the Bay Area, it has worked with Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) for San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma counties. The company has donated produce to JFCS events, including a cooking demo night and a latke-cooking night with residents of the Shupin House, a San Francisco-based independent living facility for adults with developmental disabilities.

Chesler said he and Simon had social impact and practicality in mind when they started their business, but they also are hoping that customers will learn more about their food, as well as have fun with the products and revel in the “ugliness” of the produce on social media.

“We want to encourage content generation, to create more of a community around these boxes,” Chesler said.

When this reporter received her first box, it included a chart with instructions on where to store each type of produce (on the counter, in the pantry or in the refrigerator) and which items to store separately (“fruits like apples, bananas and pears give off ethylene gas, which will make other produce ripen and go bad faster”). Also included was the “Weekly Beet,” a postcard profiling a member of the Imperfect Produce team and a piece of produce. The box also included a recipe card that called for ingredients such as “1 imperfect onion, chopped; 3 lbs. of imperfect root vegetables.” Another card that read, “I eat ugly because ______,” encouraged customers to fill in their reason, take a photo of it with “the wonkiest fruit or veg” they received, and upload the photo to social media. For each such post, the company said on the card, it would donate 5 pounds of food to the Alameda Food Bank.

If the box contained any disappointment, it was that, although some of the produce was slightly discolored, misshapen or smaller or bigger than expected, none of the produce was truly ugly.

In a previous shipment, the company sent customers boxes with adhesive-backed googly eyes that people happily stuck to their fruits and vegetables to funny effects, sharing the results on social media platforms.

“People love playing with their food,” Chesler said. “That’s good … we like making it fun.”