More than one way to fight food waste

The war against waste marches on. Most people in the industry are familiar with Imperfect Produce BB #:299328, the company (founded in 2015) that fights food waste by delivering cosmetically defective fruits and vegetables to its customers.

Imperfect Produce has reinvented and renamed itself—as Imperfect Foods. As of October, it’s started offering its services in New York, and it has expanded its wares to include grains, dairy, and protein-based items. Discussing the move, Reilly Brock, Imperfect’s content manager, noted, “New York is the epicenter of food and culture.”

So it may be. But Imperfect’s move is clever in another way. It is moving closer to offering what Amazon and Whole Foods provide: free delivery of a wide range of goods. Its niche is offering products that would otherwise be wasted and can thus be sold at lower prices.

The importance of delivery may be most strongly felt in places such as New York, which is not an automobile-based culture. Although the city has more than enough cars to cause jams and congestion, many New Yorkers don’t own one, and many native New Yorkers don’t even know how to drive.

Only the city’s most outlying districts in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, have auto ownership rates of over 80 percent, according to the New York City Economic Development Council. For Manhattanites, that rate goes down to under 18 percent.

Most Americans buy groceries using their cars. They put their purchases in the trunk, drive them home, and unload them, often from the garage. People may consider this a nuisance, but it is a manageable one.

In dense urban areas such as New York, it’s a different picture. There are few large supermarkets. Instead, residents rely on neighborhood stores. They make smaller purchases and take them home either by foot, public transportation, or the occasional cab or Uber.

The beauty of delivery was not lost on writer Connie Chen, who wrote an enthusiastic review of Imperfect Produce (as it was still called) for Business Insider. Living in another densely populated part of the country—the San Francisco Bay Area—she writes, “I didn’t have to wait on the very unreliable buses in Berkeley to take me to and from the grocery store.”

Some have criticized Imperfect Produce for making money from food that would otherwise have gone to food banks and been given to the poor for free.

Other critics include advocates of community service agriculture (CSA). These organizations are urban based, but develop relationships with small growers, often those using alternative methods such as organic farming.

One such CSA is Oakland, CA, based Phat Beets. On their website, they criticized Imperfect Produce for “commodifying food which would go to the poor for free while branding themselves as an ethical solution to food waste. Unlike CSAs, they aren’t rooted in a community economy, but the free market, investors, and higher income consumers.”

Responding to this criticism, Ben Simon, CEO of Imperfect Foods, writes, “This is good food passed over based on surface-level cosmetics. It is not inherently—and should never have to become—waste. We are saving good produce from rotting on fields, paying hard working farmers a fair price for it, and helping middle and working class people save money on healthy produce.”

From a more commercial angle, Phat Beets can’t have been pleased at seeing “a 30-percent drop in customers” in the three years after Imperfect Produce started marketing in their area (chiefly Oakland and Berkeley).

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that delivery is a major advantage provided by Imperfect Foods and its kin (such as Misfits Market, BB #:349668 over the more limited services of CSAs. (Admittedly, many CSAs deliver, but Phat Beets’ delivery area, for example, only covers parts of Oakland and Berkeley.)

And although the marketers of imperfect items pitch to upmarket audiences, the advantage of delivery may actually be more important to poorer people. It’s easy to imagine an older consumer living alone who would be happy to have a reasonably priced box of produce delivered to her once a week.

In any case, delivery—certainly the hottest trend in retail grocery—has its pitfalls if poorly thought out. This week The Wall Street Journal ran a piece pointing out how staffers rushing around to fill one-hour delivery orders in Whole Foods markets are disrupting ordinary shoppers in the aisles. This indicates that for the retailer, delivery can’t be an afterthought.

As for the purveyors of imperfect produce, it’s hard to criticize them. While both food banks and CSAs play important roles in fighting hunger, one thing is clear: there’s plenty of waste to go around.

Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published eleven books.