Ugly produce companies: a solution or a disruption

April 15th, 2019  |  Published in Health, Uncategorized

The smaller, starter box offered by Misfits Market, a Philadelphia-based start-up that delivers ugly farm produce. Photo: Misfits Market

Excited about the delivery of her first box of ugly farm produce, Qiu Cheng, a doctoral fellow in New York University’s Food Studies program, immediately shared it on social media.

“Food waste has been a serious issue in the U.S.— over 50 percent of the produce never make to our tables, and being ugly is one of the major reasons,” said Qiu, “so I was delighted when I found Misfits Market that connects us with organic, funny-looking, produce and decided to try.”

Misfits Market, a Philadelphia-based startup launched last fall, delivers both one-time purchases and weekly or bi-weekly subscription boxes of certified organic produce that “are often rejected by grocery stores and supermarkets due to natural imperfections or variations in size,” according to its website. With most of their produce from farms in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the company now serves Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, plus Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

The inspiration for the company was an apple-picking trip, said Abhi Ramesh, CEO and founder, where he found out that thousands of the fallen, or misshapen, or spotted apples went into separate bins—some of them ended up in famers markets while the rest got composted, tossed, or fed to the pigs. 

Ramesh was well connected in the venture capital community: the graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania had worked in finance and launched a successful business providing online software engineering education. His idea to reduce food waste and make healthy food more affordable and accessible attracted outside investors. He then started contacting farms, working on supply chains and logistics, and building up the right infrastructure.

In the U.S., 30 to 40 percent of the food supply is wasted, corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2015, the USDA joined with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set a goal to cut the nation’s food waste by 50 percent by 2030.

“Ugly is just a small fraction of food waste. A lot of the times there’s just inefficiencies in the food markets and the food system that no one is able to fix,” Ramesh said, “so we kind of have access to all of these different inefficiencies in the food system—there’s size, shape, there’s excess.”

While companies like Misfits claim to combat food waste, not everyone is buying it. “Most ‘ugly’ produce gets turned into soups, sauces, salsa, jam, ice cream,” crop scientist Sarah Taber wrote on Twitter. “As someone who works in produce, this whole ‘ugly fruit’ movement is actually kind of enraging because it’s completely disconnected from what really happens in the supply chain.”

After leaving the farm, most produce goes to a packinghouse, and packinghouses only throw out fruit when it’s inedible, wrote Taber, who holds a Doctor of Plant Medicine degree from the University of Florida and has worked in agriculture for over two decades. “What happens to most of the produce that’s edible, has enough shape to survive in transit, but looks funny? It goes to the grocery stores that poor people shop at.”

“There is no simple answer to how we deal with food waste, but commodifying it is not the solution,” Max Cadji, food system coordinator at Phat Beets Produce, wrote in an op-ed he coauthored for The New Food Economy last year.

Phat Beets Produce is a California based non-profit aiming to connect small farmers to urban communities through farmers markets, free farm stands, and CSAs—community-supported agriculture systems—that allow consumers to subscribe to the harvest of one or several farms. Cadji claimed that he had seen a 30-percent drop in their CSA customers in the three years since Imperfect Produce, a San Francisco based ugly produce company, arrived. “Unlike CSAs, it isn’t rooted in a community economy, but in the free market, investors, and higher-income consumers. Small farmers and poor communities lose out in the process. The reality is that this produce would have otherwise gone to food banks, to be redistributed for free.”

Ramesh regards this as a misconception. “The reality is that the vast majority of farms don’t have the infrastructure to constantly donate their produce to food banks.” Produce is inexpensive but transportation is expensive, he said.

Wes Hannah, owner of Solid Ground Farm, a small family-owned farm in Kingston, NY, relies on profits from two farmer’s markets and the CSA program. But 10% to 20% of Hannah’s crops, especially fruiting crops like pepper, tomato, and eggplant, would be left on the ground as compost because of their looks, he said. He likes Misfits’ idea to reduce food waste and would sell his funny-shaped crops, which would otherwise be composted, through companies like Misfits, if they were interested.

And Ramesh is interested. “We work with a lot of smaller farms,” he said, who builds Misfits around small and medium farms because they don’t have the resources to sell to juice or can companies.

Misfits currently works bothwith farmers’ cooperatives, which have 50 to 200 farms under their umbrella, and directly with individual farms, fluctuating between 200 and 300 on weekly basis, he said.

“I do realize that Misfits can’t solve the root problem of food wasted in the country—it’s a profit maximization food system, highly industrialized, distant from customers, controlled by a few monopolized food companies, and tends to overproduce—maximizing yields from seedling to growing,” Qiu said. “Companies sometimes choose to waste or send them to other countries as food aid rather than putting them in the market, just to keep the price at a certain level.”

But as a customer, “it’s cheap, and I’m helping with one part of the food waste problem,” Qiu said. She finds Misfits a good complement to her grocery shopping though she can’t control what’s inside the bi-weekly box she is getting. “I’m currently satisfied with the boxes I got—the variety, the quality—I don’t really mind those scars.” She got a mixture of fruits like apples and vegetables like peppers, eggplants, Brussels sprouts, and potatoes. “The issue for me is that some of their stuff are still purchased from places far-away, not necessarily locally-sourced— avocados from Mexico, for example,” she said.

The choice to include fruits and greens from outside the region was made to diversify the boxes during the winter months, according to Misfits’ website. Customers may expect more locally sourced produce now that it’s spring.

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