Let’s Talk about Food Waste
By Ben Simon, Co-Founder and CEO
Recently, we got some questions about where our produce comes from, how we work with food banks, and how our work here at Imperfect fits into the larger issues of waste and hunger. Just as we’re committed to reducing food waste and creating a better food system for everyone, we’re equally committed to being a company that’s open, honest, and transparent. As Co-Founder and CEO of Imperfect, I’m opening the box to set the record straight.
To quote Feeding America, “When we stop food waste, we take a big step toward ending hunger.” Every major organization in the space is in virtual consensus on two facts: that there is massive scale food waste going on at the farm level and that it’s nearly impossible to solve issues of hunger without also solving issues of food waste.
According to Feeding America, NRDC and ReFED, there are 20 billion pounds of produce getting wasted on farms each year — after food banks take what they can. This 20 billion pounds of produce, though perfectly healthy and nutritious, goes to waste because it doesn’t fit the beauty standards developed by grocery stores. It’s from this 20 billion pounds of produce that Imperfect sources from.
A few weeks ago, a competing service accused Imperfect of “commodifying food waste.” I was deeply bothered as this was the first time in my 7 years working in food waste that I’ve heard anyone want to see more food go to waste.
At Imperfect, we see it as commodifying food. Our rallying call to action is that 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. To me, calling that “commodifying food waste” is a gross misrepresentation of the heart of this problem, which is good food not getting eaten, and a negligent dismissal of the climate implications if we don’t do something about it.
Our mission to eliminate food waste and build a better food system for everyone is not a side-project or afterthought; it’s our reason for being. If the most effective way to create this impact was as a non-profit or advocacy group, we would be doing that instead. In fact, before starting Imperfect as a business, we first tried solving these issues through a purely charitable model and then as a revenue-generating non-profit. I want to share my journey because it illustrates how my passion for fighting food waste drove my desire to achieve the most impact, which eventually led me to social entrepreneurship.
I grew up watching a lot of companies take more from people and the planet than they gave back. My activism started in high school and grew throughout college, where my friends and I saw good food getting wasted in our campus dining halls. So we created Food Recovery Network, a non-profit that rescued all this food and get it to hungry people in our community. We spread the word to students across the country and today FRN is America’s largest student movement against hunger and food waste with chapters on 230 colleges and 3 million pounds of food donated.
Breaking bread with the people we were serving and hearing their stories reinforced the power of food recovery and also the pain caused by a flawed food system. We grow enough food in this country to feed everyone and yet 40 million Americans still struggle with hunger, in large part because we waste 40% of the nation’s food. Meanwhile, our food system is one of the largest contributors to climate change. Reducing food waste is the third highest impact action humanity can take right now to avert the disaster of global warming, according to Project Drawdown.
We started to think about creating a solution to food waste that could someday grow to meet the scale of the problem, which is in the tens of billions of pounds per year. We began asking, “where is the most food getting wasted in America that could realistically be recovered and go to people instead?” The answer was clear: farms. As mentioned, around 20 billion pounds of produce goes to waste on farms every year, largely because it’s too ugly to make it to the grocery store. The first version of Imperfect started in 2013 and was a project of FRN called the Recovered Food CSA (I know, not the most creative name). We tried our best to scale this with a non-profit model, but like many non-profits, our impact was limited by how much funding we were able to raise. Without a significant investment, it was clear that operating this way was going to make it impossible for us to keep the produce affordable while also paying all of our employees a living wage, two non-negotiables for us.
My co-founder, Ben Chesler, and I decided to launch Imperfect in August 2015 as a for-profit Public Benefit Corporation. We cemented our mission as taking equal priority to creating shareholder value. We then scraped together any little bit of funding we could from friends and family to put a downpayment on a small warehouse in Emeryville, California, while sharing a trundle bed to save money. Fast forward three years and we’ve recovered 35 million pounds of produce and donated over 1.2 million pounds to nonprofits in the fight against hunger.
At Imperfect, we believe that businesses have the power to do good in the world. We live and breathe this every day in our commitment to tackling food waste, and also through our Reduced-Cost Box Program that serves 7,000 low-income families every week. Anyone who meets the income requirements for SNAP can get an additional 33% off our produce boxes, reducing their box cost to 50% less than what it would be at a grocery store. We lose money on all these orders, but do it because it’s the right thing to do and because we believe passionately that nobody should be priced out of good food. We’re proud that in the 10 cities we serve along the West Coast, Midwest and Texas, our program is often the most affordable way to access fresh produce.
The most meaningful part of our mission, to me personally, is creating hundreds of living wage jobs. Our people are the heart and soul of Imperfect. All of our warehouse and delivery jobs pay at the 75th percentile and include full health care, vision and dental, free produce, an equity stake in the company, and the chance to earn an annual raise. Still, the number one thing our people like most about working at Imperfect is our mission and our culture. I’ve had members of our warehouse crew tell me with tears in their eyes that in decades of warehouse jobs this is the first one where they felt like they’ve been seen as a person rather than a number. And I’ve been brought to tears myself.
However, Imperfect is not and never will be a silver bullet for every problem plaguing the food system. Food justice has never been a single issue, but rather a series of interconnected factors. I firmly believe that Imperfect makes an important contribution to a more just and sustainable food system, and yet I recognize we’re a drop in the bucket. Given all of the pressing issues right now, including climate change (see the UN’s new report), we desperately need more organizations coming up with creative solutions to address these problems.
If you look at ReFed’s research on food waste, you’ll see a sobering picture. While 20 billion pounds of produce get wasted on farms, an additional 54 billion get wasted by people like you and me. We’re seeing more and more unnatural weather events and the path we’re on threatens to disrupt our quality of life and the world we will pass on to our children and grandchildren. We’re wrestling with truly massive problems that all the experts agree will require a unified and holistic effort to solve. Let’s put our energy toward doubling down on solving these pressing issues – together.