Q+A W/ Co-Founder BEN SIMON
You don’t need an “alibi” to love this u.g.l.y PRODUCE!
Who said “ugly” was a BAD thing, anyway? Whether it’s a quirky tomato, carrot, dog or cat, we think the “uglies” of the world are adorable, and shouldn’t be discriminated. Did you know, being an ugly “hater” actually has negative implications on our Earth? The United States wastes 60 million TONS of perfectly edible grown food each year, because it doesn’t pass the “pretty” test. That’s just not nice.
Ben Simon created a company devoted to eliminating this “cosmetic criteria.” Imperfect takes funny-looking produce rejected by grocery stores and delivers it to your doorstep, for 30-50% LESS than what buying the “pretty” stuff at the store costs.
Economically and environmentally friendly, nutritious and delicious? Now THAT’S beautiful.
PS! Check out their Instagram, to see just how CUTE ugly can be!
Images Courtesy of Colette Krey.
by CHLOE.: Hi Ben! Thanks for chatting with us! We’ll let you introduce yourself.
Ben Simon: My name is Ben Simon and I’m the Co-Founder and CEO of Imperfect. We deliver “ugly” and surplus produce that would otherwise be wasted to your door each week for around 30% off grocery store prices.
bC: What is “ugly” produce, and WHY isn’t it given a fair chance?
BS: The reality is that 1 in 5 produce items does not meet the strict cosmetic standards of grocery stores. This ends up being about 6 billion pounds per year in the U.S. — crooked carrots, small squash, or an apple with scarring or discoloration. Being too big or too small is probably the most common thing we see. A few centimeters can be the difference between produce going to waste and making it to the grocery store. The reality is that grocery stores are used to buying produce that stacks perfectly in uniform patterns in display cases, and so anything that doesn’t fit into this criteria won’t get purchased, often times getting left in the field and going to waste. We proudly buy any and all good produce that doesn’t fit within these narrow cosmetic criteria.
bC: How was the issue of food waste initially brought to your attention? What spurred your idea to start Imperfect Produce?
BS: As a college student at the University of Maryland, I noticed a lot of food in our cafeteria going to waste. This needless waste inspired me to start the Food Recovery Network (FRN), a non-profit dedicated to preventing waste on college campuses. Through this work with the FRN, I met Imperfect Co-Founder Ben Chesler. As we kept learning more about food waste, we realized that there was an even bigger opportunity to make an impact on food waste by addressing the billions of pounds of “ugly” and surplus produce that never even made it off of farms every year. Together, we founded Imperfect in August 2015 with the mission of finding a home for the 1 in 5 fruits and vegetables that grocery stores wouldn’t buy because of how they looked.
bC: How big of an issue is food waste in the United States today?
BS: Food waste is a massive environmental problem. We grow enough food to feed everyone in this country, but we waste 40% of what we grow. Food is the number one item filling up landfills at a time when we have 1 in 5 kids struggling with food insecurity. Our food system is the top driver of climate change, making reducing food waste one of the low hanging fruits to saving the planet alongside shifting away from animal agriculture. Project Drawdown estimates that reducing food waste is one of the best ways we can help reverse global warming, and reduce up to 8% of our CO2 emissions as a society.
bC: What are some negative implications that food waste has on the farming industry, and on our environment?
BS: When we waste food, we end up wasting other resources as well. Food waste ends up wasting nearly a quarter of our water supply in the form of uneaten food or over $172 billion in wasted water. We’re wasting a ton of money too. As a country we spend over 220 BILLION dollars growing, transporting, and processing over 60 MILLION tons of food that ends up going to waste. If the land that we cultivate growing food that goes to waste in the US were all in one place, it would cover more than 3/4 of California! Growing food that goes to waste ends up using up 21% of our freshwater, 19% of our fertilizer, 18% of our cropland, and 21% of our landfill volume.
bC: How does Imperfect Produce help communities struggling with hunger?
BS: At Imperfect, we’re working hard to increase food accessibility and reduce food deserts by offering a reduced cost box to those that qualify for SNAP benefits. We also are huge supporters of food banks and donate thousands of pounds of fresh produce to food banks across the country every week. This year to date we’ve donated over 600,000 pounds of fresh produce to food banks. Outside of our office in San Francisco, our employees also host a free farmers market for those in need twice a week.
bC: What are some challenges that you faced when starting your own company?
BS: Anyone who works in produce will tell you that sourcing fresh fruits and veggies is a 3D chess match between weather, the volatility of the produce market, and other factors like trucking availability and consumer demand. You have to be flexible and build good relationships with your growers, which takes time and patience.
We also had to do a bit of education about what produce looks like at the start. People are conditioned to see uniform, perfect-looking produce in the grocery store but once they realize how much food is needlessly wasted every year because of minor cosmetic quirks they open their minds pretty quickly. Honestly the most common feedback we get from customers about the appearance of our produce is “Hey! This isn’t even ugly at all!” The reality is that for cooking at home, appearance couldn’t matter less.
bC: Where do you hope to see your company within the next 5 years? Are there any plans to open an Imperfect Produce brick and mortar grocery store…?
Our vision is for Imperfect to deliver to 30-40 major cities nationwide so that we can make an even more positive impact on our food system. In our first 3 years of business we’ve expanded to 7 cities along the West Coast and Midwest and kept over 30 million pounds of produce from going to waste. We’re about to open up in Texas and then are heading to the East Coast. While we’re quite proud of this, I hope that one day we can be recovering billions of pounds of produce and helping folks all across the country eat better and waste less. We’re not particularly
interested in opening a brick and mortar facility as our niche and focus has always been delivering to more homes and making our deliveries as awesome as possible.
bC: Where can you be found in your free time? Any hobbies?
BS: I’m into long walks around SF, yoga, movies, board games, and cooking delicious vegan meals with my fiancee. I also love watching the Warriors when it’s NBA season.
Nickname? Does “Ben” count?
Favorite place on earth? Takoma Park, Maryland.
Favorite “ugly” produce? Avocados.
Secret talent? Might be rusty, but I can beatbox “Drop it Like it’s Hot.”
Early bird or night owl? I’m a night owl who dreams of waking up early.
Choice super hero power? I think it’d be fun to dunk a basketball.
Juice or smoothie? Nothing like a nice green smoothie.
3 objects you can’t live without? Cat 1 (Malcolm), cat 2 (Ariel), yoga mat.
Whatcha readin’? A very dense book about operational excellence in car manufacturing called The Toyota Way. A great fit for any bedside table. It’ll put you to sleep right away.