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Doubling Down on our Third Birthday

Though Imperfect Produce is a venture-backed startup based in San Francisco, we are also a mission-driven organization that is attempting to do a pretty rare thing in Silicon Valley: do well by doing good in the world. Three years and seven cities after we started as a local, scrappy startup in Emeryville, California, we have expanded nationally and changed a lot, which comes with plenty of growing pains and opportunities to answer thoughtful but challenging questions.

So on the occasion of our third birthday, we thought it was appropriate to hit the proverbial “pause button” and take stock. We’ve been looking back on the impact we’ve made since our founding, re-evaluating our goals for the future, and doubling down on our mission:

To eliminate food waste in the world and build a better food system for everyone.

But why food waste?

Our society is throwing away 165 billion dollars in food every year, while one in six Americans goes hungry.

At the root of the problem of food waste is not supply, but distribution. According to NRDC’s 2017 report on food waste (page 14), 20 billion pounds of fresh produce go to waste on farms each year. How much produce do food banks recover from farms? While there is no official number, we can get pretty close and it looks like it’s around 1-2% of this 20 billion pounds.

Here’s the breakdown of those stats based on the best data available right now. Nationwide, Feeding America reported that in 2017, they received over 1.47 billion pounds of produce from all of their sources including grocery stores, distributors, and farms. They clarified to Imperfect that produce sourced from farms makes up approximately 10% of this 1.47 billion pounds, so roughly 147 million pounds. This 147 million pounds is the closest national figure available, but some food banks aren’t in Feeding America’s network so the total number is likely larger. Another useful data point is that in California, where one third of our country’s vegetables and two thirds of our fruits are grown (according to the California Department of Agriculture), food banks recovered 164 million pounds of produce in 2017. Most of this volume went to Feeding America food banks, so there’s a good amount of overlap in the produce counted in this California figure and in the national Feeding America figure. Our best estimate from this would be that food banks and other non-profits recovered roughly 200 to 400 million pounds of produce from farms in 2017. While this is a tremendous impact, there is another 20 billion left behind, so 50 to 100 times what’s currently recovered by food banks.

Food waste and hunger are inextricably linked, and there’s no way to eliminate hunger without also addressing food waste. The NRDC reports that recovering less than one-third of the food we currently throw out would be enough to feed every American that is food insecure. Simply put, there is thankfully more than enough produce around to feed everyone, including via food banks. The issue is getting it into the hands of people who want and need it while it’s still fresh. 

Our co-founders came to know the problem of food waste early in their lives when, as college students fed up with the amount of food going to waste at their school cafeterias, they started the nonprofit Food Recovery Network. The concept was simple: use student volunteers to transport unsold food and donate it to food banks and meal sites in the community. Over the course of more than three years, they were able to get students at 150 universities involved in the effort. Our hearts will always align with the mission of eliminating food waste and increasing access to it.

It’s a tall order and we’ve got a long way to go before we can declare “mission accomplished,” but I’m proud to say that in just three short years we’ve been able to deliver real impact and measurable progress toward this worthy goal:

  • We’ve recovered more than 30 million pounds of food, meaning that all of the water, land, and labor that went into growing this produce went towards a nourishing purpose, instead of going to waste.

  • We’ve donated over half a million pounds of produce to our food bank partners across the country, helping make healthy food more accessible for more people.

In the words of our friend Amanda, Director of the Westchester Food Pantry in Chicago:

“Before Imperfect, there were NO large produce donations for us. There were no farmers or companies trying to give us produce. None. It was what we got from Greater Chicago Food Depository or nothing at all. Thanks to Imperfect, we’ve gotten more produce than ever before for our clients.”

Additionally, we operate a weekly Free Farmers Market at our San Francisco headquarters, which is located in a food desert, where we distribute surplus produce to our wonderful neighbors.

But our mission isn’t just the elimination of food waste in the world. It’s also to build a better food system for everyone, which includes our customers, food banks, our employees, and farmers. This requires achieving a scale of impact that goes beyond one city, one region, or one state.

We choose to solve this problem through a market-based solution. While there are certainly a number of ways to address food waste and hunger, we think that this is a meaningful way to do it at scale, generate value, and solve an economic and environmental problem, all while rewarding farmers for their full harvest. In addition to wasted land, water, and fertilizer, any crop farmers leave in the field represents lost revenue.

Working with Imperfect represents a far better financial outcome for a grower of any size as we are able to pay them a fair price for produce that would normally go to waste. According to Tara of the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative:

“Working with retail grocery stores is really challenging as a smaller coop, as 30 percent of your harvest each year could end up as waste because of cosmetic standards. Working with Imperfect gives [farmers] more flexibility and helps their bottom line.”

And while we love and respect small, local farmers, we made a conscious choice to source from medium and large-scale growers and coops early-on because this would enable us to make a bigger impact on food waste, deliver produce to more cities, and connect folks with healthy fruits and vegetables year round.

Connecting farmers with this new market for their produce, in turn, means we are able to offer our subscribers healthy produce for up to 30 percent less, on average, than grocery store prices. On top of this, we offer an additional discount for anyone participating in government food assistance programs, to ensure everyone has access to fresh and healthy food.

We’re also committed to providing good, local jobs:

  • We’ve created hundreds of local jobs (so far!)

  • Every full-time Imperfect employee, whether a delivery driver or senior executive, has an equity stake in the company.

  • We offer health, dental, and vision benefits to every full-time employee, whether salaried or hourly.

  • We’re committed to paying our hourly employees at the 75th percentile of the local pay average, and in some places, we pay double the local minimum wage.

All of our business decisions have enabled us to make a big impact on a huge social and environmental problem while feeding more people for less money. While many are at work addressing these issues in a variety of important ways, Imperfect is our way of making a difference. We believe that our business model is proving to be an effective alternative to leaving billions of pounds of produce unpicked in the field simply because retail chains don’t want to buy curvy carrots or scarred lemons.

Food waste is a colossal issue. We do not have all the answers, but we do know that the world needs efforts of all shapes and sizes. We need businesses to work together with the government, nonprofits, local CSAs, schools, and individuals to care in new ways. We wake up every day rededicated to playing our part. We deeply appreciate your support during our first three years and we remain committed to supporting the unique part you play. Together, we can make the world a better, healthier, kinder, and more sustainable place—for all of us.

17 Comments

  • Avatar
    Marcia Suminski
    August 22, 2018 at 6:15 pm

    Hurry up and come to the Michigan area.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Reilly Brock
      August 23, 2018 at 4:59 pm

      We are working on it! Thanks for your support!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Jennifer Widmer
    August 22, 2018 at 6:39 pm

    Some would like to know how Imperfect Produce considering to offer meat and dairy options can be part of a ‘sustainable’ model.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Jeff Medeiros
    August 23, 2018 at 9:32 am

    Congratulations to the Imperfect Team!! (I love typing that…the true underdogs). I had not read the scale of the problem and the opportunity before this posting. Please keep us informed…and keep up the great work. Not just about the saving of the otherwise wasted produce…but also about the positive impact on the rest of the eco-system…including giving local people an opportunity to earn a living wage w/ proper benefits. It’s the "perfect" solution. Nothing but love.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Reilly Brock
      August 23, 2018 at 4:58 pm

      Thank you, Jeff! We appreciate your kind words and support. The problems facing our food system are indeed large and complex to solve, which is why we are going to need action at every level: individuals, businesses, governments, and nonprofits alike to achieve real change. Your awareness and generosity can help make a meaningful impact. Thank you for embracing the imperfect but important work still ahead of us. Nothing but love back at you!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Karen Bopp
    August 26, 2018 at 6:22 pm

    We love getting produce delivered to our door! Would like to see a way of connecting compost pick up to the delivery service- possibly re-using the boxes. In the meantime, looking forward to some form of re-usable box instead of sending so much cardboard to recycling. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Reilly Brock
      August 28, 2018 at 12:36 am

      Thank you for your support and for the thoughtful idea about our boxes. We really appreciate it. We’ll pass the compost pick up idea along to our innovation team! We know that reusable packaging is a priority for many of our customers.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Glenda Johnson
    August 26, 2018 at 7:09 pm

    Bravo on your 3rd birthday! I love being a member and hope that if you ever go public that you will let your customers know, FIRST! Thanks for all the great work you do and keep us in the loop on how we can help all of us get this RIGHT!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Reilly Brock
      August 28, 2018 at 12:36 am

      Thank you so much for your support and kind words!

      Reply
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    Sheri G
    August 26, 2018 at 9:23 pm

    Hi there. I’m a new customer – just got my first box last week and enjoying the produce. I believe that you truly do good work, and am impressed by how you’ve scaled. But I do have a couple of questions about your business practices that arose when reading this blog post:

    1) I understand that you made a conscious choice early on to source from medium and large-scale growers, but you also say "Working with Imperfect represents a far better financial outcome for a grower of any size". So, are you planning on partnering with small, local farmers at any point?

    2) You "recovered more than 30 million pounds of food" in three years and donated "over half a million pounds" to your food bank partners. Can you explain why less than 2% was given to the food banks when that is clearly where a huge need exists? I understand and can respect that you have to make money to stay in business, but surely you can afford to donate more than 1.6%?

    Thanks again for the work you put into getting fresh produce to people!

    Sheri

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Reilly Brock
      August 28, 2018 at 12:35 am

      Hey Sheri,
      We’re really glad to hear that you enjoyed your first box. Thanks for your support and for opening up a thoughtful conversation about our business practices. Here are our thoughts on your questions.
      1) Yes, we are open to it and do source from smaller growers in some of our markets. In the Midwest, we work with several Amish growers ranging from the small "hoop-house" scale to over 20 acres. Where we can source locally and on a small scale we do, both to reduce food miles, and because we know it matters to our customers and the small farmers of the world. Because we increasingly need produce by the pallet and truckload instead of the case, we do have to work with larger growers to keep up with customer demand and operate on a larger scale. That said, we are certainly open to working with more smaller growers if we can find ways to make the supply work out. It’s more complicated than buying from larger growers, but clearly, something that our community wants and that smaller growers need to prosper in today’s world. We’re open to community and farmers ideas on this front, for the record!
      2) We are a double bottom line company, where we want to do well by doing good. We are backed by investors who want to use their capital in a way that materially improves the world. Operating in this way has allowed us to make an enormous impact on our goal of decreasing food waste, and as you note recover over 30 million pounds of produce that would otherwise have gone to waste. At the same, our interest in and commitment to doing good is not limited simply to our goal of saving produce from being wasted and the environmental and social impacts related to that. We also devote an enormous amount of resources to helping our communities in other ways. Our employees volunteer at food banks, we provide discounted boxes to those eligible for SNAP benefits (making no profit on these boxes/offering these below cost), and we operate a weekly free market for those who can’t afford fresh fruit and vegetables to name a few. And as you point out, we donate some of our produce to food banks. While we wish our employees could spend a lot more of their time volunteering at food banks, and wish we could donate a lot more of our produce to food banks and our free markets, there is always a balance between maintaining the profitability of our business, which is what allows us to maximize our produce recovery efforts, and donating our time and resources to other important organizations and activities about which we and our employees are passionate. You’re right that the world needs companies like us to think bigger and find ways to be generous while also staying in business. We believe that the problems of waste and hunger are solvable if we all work together and are doing our best to play our part.

      Thank you again for your work, for reading our blog, and for having a thoughtful and respectful conversation with us! 💚

      Reply
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    Helen Leung
    August 26, 2018 at 10:54 pm

    Hello! and Happy 3rd birthday! My husband and I are honored to be part of this "new thinking" organization. Congrats from where you came from and to where you are heading! This is another way my husband and I feel we help out our community. Thank you for the opportunity!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Reilly Brock
      August 28, 2018 at 12:37 am

      Thank you so much, Helen! We appreciate your support!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    bryan ruzicka
    August 27, 2018 at 2:04 am

    I’m a recent subscriber (have received three orders so far), but am considering cancelling. I have the same concerns as Sheri G. I read an article recently that suggested much of the produce you acquire would have otherwise been donated to food banks. This is concerning. I’ve also been frustrated by the wasted boxes. Each is brand new, with no sign of use. Can’t you figure out a way to provide reusable boxes? I’d happily pay for a reusable box. Not a hard nut to crack!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Reilly Brock
      August 28, 2018 at 10:52 pm

      Hey Bryan,
      We hear your concern. To be really clear about this, we do not sell food that would otherwise have been donated to food banks. There is so much surplus food, that even after donations to food banks and what we rescue, there is still tons of food that either goes unharvested or into the waste system. The scale of the problem is really that big.

      Your feedback about the boxes is totally valid and something we’ve heard before. We use single use cardboard due to packaged food safety laws, but we know that this is an environmental compromise for us as a company and not a 100% sustainable solution. That’s really helpful to know that you would pay more for a reusable box. We will share this feedback with our packaging team and keep our eyes and ears out for more sustainable ways to get you your produce each week.

      Thanks for speaking up about what matters to you. It helps us to learn and get better every day.

      Reply
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    Loa Arnoth
    September 9, 2018 at 12:04 am

    I think what you’re doing is wonderful! Such a needed service in our wasteful world! Thank you for your hard work and sacrifices! I love your produce boxes!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Reilly Brock
      September 11, 2018 at 9:08 pm

      Thank you so much, Loa! We really appreciate your support and encouragement.

      Reply

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