I’ll admit it: I’ve been known to judge a book by its cover, and an apple by it’s pristine, crisp, bruise-free skin. So when I learned that there were programs out there specifically designed to bring you the most ugly, bruised, discolored, and grotesque looking produce, I was skeptical. So, the fruit and veggies too unseemly looking for grocery store shelves were being “rescued.” So, it might reduce human food waste. So, a study found Americans wasted almost 150,000 tons of food each day between 2007 and 2014. So, what? The snobby, picky eater in me turned up her nose. Yet, my environmentally conscious heart told me to give it a try.
Shockingly, I was not disappointed. I tested two of the big players in the world of unwanted produce: Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods (formerly Imperfect Produce). They’re just a few brands in a sea of for-profit startups in the sector with offerings the The Atlantic calls “the rescue dogs of vegetation.” Both companies sent me boxes of peppers, cucumbers, and eggplants, oh my!
The Imperfect Foods box was stuffed with a vast variety of treats that seemed pretty close to perfect to me. The kale seemed fresh, the plums were lush, the carrots were a little spindley, but they tasted as good as a carrot can taste. One lemon’s rind looked scratched, but it was still juicy. The box also came with some surprising non-produce products. For example, there was a bottle of oat milk, a package of quinoa, and a bag of almonds. Ben Chesler, the co-founder and chief innovation officer of Imperfect, told me that they've expanded to include products with expiration dates that may not appeal to customers by the time they get to the store. “People won’t pick up products that are getting close to their sell-by dates, even though they’re still fresh,” Chesler says.
The box I received from Misfits Market was more on par with what I expected from a company that claims to deliver “potatoes that are shaped like your favorite celebrity” and “carrots that fell in love and got twisted together.” There was also a ton of food. There was a bag filled with grapes ranging in color from green to brown (still tasty). Short and fat cucumbers. The biggest eggplant I’d ever seen, and some wrinkled red peppers. Potatoes, zucchini, apples, they had it all. And none of it actually tasted gross (other than the peppers, which I’m never a big fan of even at their freshest). The company’s CEO and founder Abhi Ramesh told me that the offering tends to change from season to season, depending on what the farmers have a plethora of. Like Imperfect, they work with farmers to figure out what’s too ugly to sell or what crops they have too much of, so that their harvest won’t go to waste. The companies’ goals are similar: To reduce waste, to help smaller-scale farms, and give more people access to fresh produce with their affordable subscription services.
However, there’s some debate in the food supply chain world about whether or not these services are really saving the planet. They have their fair share of critics, who say they’re not really the sustainability darlings they claim to be. Sarah Taber, a crop scientist and the host of the Farm To Taber podcast, wrote a thread on Twitter about the ugly produce biz, saying they weren’t exactly a fix to America’s food waste issues, but not necessarily a problem either. She points out that produce that is good enough to eat, but not beautiful usually goes to grocery stores where lower-income families shop, or it’s made into products such as cider, salsa, or sweet potato fries. However, she adds: “The food system is a hot mess but using ugly produce is one thing it's actually really good at,” Taber writes. “Using every single part of what's grown, if there's any possible way to sell it.”
Everyone thinks that it’s a problem that, by some counts, almost half of the produce in America is wasted. And while these ugly fruit services may not be the silver bullet that stops waste, they also have their high points. For one, you get a lot of produce for what you’re paying for, making it more accessible. Ramesh points out that because the boxes are delivered, fewer people have to get into their cars and drive to the grocery stores, cutting carbon emissions. Chesler notes that they use sustainable packaging and energy throughout their process, and are always looking for ways to become more eco-friendly.
Plus, in my opinion, the fruit’s delish, and convenient. The proof and the truth about these fruits goes beyond skin deep.