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.
Scott HendersonOctober 14, 2018 at 8:19 pm
Ben and Team,
We applaud your creative, sustainable and scalable business approach to this significant issue in our country. Taking on the status quo and traditional supply chain is not an easy task, and it requires a culture of "hope" to make progress in creating a new reality. Thank you and continued success to the entire IP crew.
ImperfectOctober 17, 2018 at 5:58 pm
Thanks for your kind words. We’re doing our best to make an impact on the enormous problem that is food waste but we couldn’t do it without you. We really appreciate your support and encouragement!
Katherine BondOctober 14, 2018 at 9:57 pm
Thank you for all you do! We love our produce boxes and are getting healthier as a result. It’s too bad that the very progressives who should champion innovative solutions like yours sometimes carry a negative attitude toward business that slams even eco-entrepreneurs. A little more balance, people! Prosperity done right can help a lot of people!
I’m delighted to see that my small grocery investment can play a part in such an important project.
ImperfectOctober 17, 2018 at 5:57 pm
You’re so welcome, Katherine. Thank you for your support. We’re really happy to hear that you’re enjoying the produce and that it’s having such a positive impact on your life. Thanks for believing in us. We couldn’t be recovering so much produce every year without the support of kind folks like you.
Kelleen Silveira RoseOctober 15, 2018 at 4:01 pm
I read the previous article criticizing your practices and comparing your business to farmer’s markets and other similar products. The thing is, as a single income family of 5, those other products are out of our price range. When you provide the food you do, at a much cheaper price, it is something we can actually afford. You aren’t taking our business from the farmer’s markets or the other boxed produce companies, you’re taking our business from the big chain stores, and that’s okay! You provide a product that reduces food waste and is affordable for people like us. My kids LOVE getting our box of produce each week and it makes me happy to see them drag the box inside and dig through it, excitedly exclaiming over what fruit and vegetables we got. Do you know how hard it is to get small children excited about produce? Imperfect Produce has been a perfect fit for our family and I think you guys are doing a good thing and making it a success. Good for you!
ImperfectOctober 17, 2018 at 5:56 pm
We’re really glad to hear that you and your family are loving your weekly boxes so much. We’re all about making fruits and veggies more accessible and fun for everyone and so we’re so happy to learn that we’re making this happen for your family. The fact that your children are excited about fruits and vegetables warms our hearts. Thanks for brightening our day!
Eryn AnitaviOctober 16, 2018 at 5:45 am
There are only a handful of truly amazing CEO’s out there who deserve the most astonishing success – you, sir, are one of them.
ImperfectOctober 17, 2018 at 5:53 pm
Thanks so much for your kind words of encouragement. We’ll be sure to share them with Ben. Your support means the world to him and all of us at Imperfect!
S WeberOctober 26, 2018 at 11:39 pm
Thank you for sharing your perspective about the mission of your company. When I first learned about ImperfectBox, what drew me to the service was that I can customize my box, because I have tried other similar services in the past and ended up with produce that I had no idea what it is and what to do with. Then I read the company’s mission and story about reducing food waste, and was immediately on board. I am excited to get my box twice a month (my husband calls it my mutant box because he thought we would be getting deformed and funny looking fruits and veggies but so far he’s been disappointed), and am happy to be doing my part to help reduce food waste.
Keep up the good work and we need more entrepreneurs like you who is willing to apply their time and passion to solving problems, and creating jobs for our communities! Thanks!
ImperfectOctober 29, 2018 at 4:40 pm
I’m so happy to hear that you’re loving our mission and customizable boxes. We wouldn’t be able to do the work we’re doing to fight food waste without your support. I really appreciate you speaking up about the value of social enterprise as well. Comments like this keep me fired up to do more in the months and years ahead. Thanks for believing in a less wasteful food system!
– Ben Simon
Max Kurtz-CadjiDecember 3, 2018 at 5:28 am
I find your article very intriguing. You refer to Phat Beets Produce, a very small youth non-profit that supports farmers of color through a csa, as a "competitor "in your article. For years Imperfect said they don’t compete with CSA’s. It’s also very interesting that you infer that Phat Beets Produce supports wasting food in your blog "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. " Maybe you don’t see the monthly community meals we do under the freeways for our houseless brothers, or pickles and jams our youth make out of unsellable produce, or the 3,000lbs of grade b fruit we distribute each week for FREE to Oakland Health Centers, High Schools in the area, to houseless encampments, and to food not bombs. Deeply disappointed and saddened that instead of owning the truth and making changes to address concerns, you "double down." Everyone knows you are preparing to sell IP and get cashed you, its no secret to any of us in the movement. We see you and you cant hide from the truth.
Phat Beets Produce
Steph CiarrocchiMarch 12, 2019 at 5:15 am
I’d like to see a response to this comment. I read the article from them and that lead me to look into the issues of this and similar companies. It seems like theres more this company should be talking about that it isnt.
In general I love this idea, but I think they bring up some valid concerns. Thanks 🙂
ImperfectMarch 12, 2019 at 6:42 pm
Hey Steph, so you know, after this exchange we had a positive and productive in-person meeting with the entire team from Phat Beets where we discussed in-depth how to address these concerns and work together. They had some valid concerns and great ideas and we’re working hard to address them as best we can. When it comes to reducing food waste, we’re all on the same team at the end of the day. You can read all about that meeting on our blog, here: http://blog.imperfectproduce.com/blog-1/2018/12/18/building-a-better-food-system-for-everyone-with-everyone
Cynthia FanJanuary 11, 2020 at 11:40 pm
Ben, thanks for posting this. I’ve also read
But I’m still not sure where I stand on advocating for or against your business. Here’s why… As a fellow advocate for building a better food system, I’m still struggling to understand why you are not willing to disclose the farms and wholesalers you use in order to help assure consumers you are not incentivizing large-scale agribusiness to continue overproducing.
The illustration up top suggests there is plenty of produce for you, for food banks, AND for your competitors. So I don’t see how competitors knowing your sources would hurt you.
Also, I’m surprised ethically-minded farms and wholesalers would disagree with their names being published for the sake of a more transparent food system. A producer’s pride in not contributing to food waste should outweigh their fear of their brand being associated with misshapen goods. Take a stand and drop your contracts with producers who won’t agree. Again as you imply in your illustration, there must be plenty of other producers out there for you to offer a contract to.
You write that keeping a grower’s name in confidence is "standard in the produce world". Help me understand the reason for that standard. I am thinking that standard is one of the problems in our food system. As a fellow advocate for building a better food system, why be complicit in a flawed standard?
These are not rhetorical questions. I am genuinely interested in your responses.
Have you considered sourcing from food hubs (I am still learning the lingo… https://newfoodeconomy.org/csa-food-hub/ ) to solve the issue of scale in dealing with small to mid-size producers? Source-identification of produce is part of the mission of food hubs, from what I understand.
Thank you for collaborating with food justice leaders in the Bay Area (Planting Justice, Phat Beets, and Food First) and posting a summary of your December 2018 meeting with them at
In topic 7, you allude to meeting with them again. I’d be grateful to see a summary of that meeting on your blog as well.
I’m glad they brought up a request for you to commit to not working with growers who are under boycott. As part of your desire to help build a better food system, I am very interested in seeing you commit to only working with growers who have a union contract with their employees or have a social responsibility policy that includes the following (language taken from the Center for Good Food Purchasing’s purchasing standards version 2.1):
(1) union or non-poverty wages;
(2) respect for freedom of association and collective bargaining;
(3) safe and healthy working conditions;
(4) proactive policy on preventing sexual harassment and assault,
(5) prohibition of child labor, as defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and at least one additional employment benefit such as:
(a) employer-paid health insurance
(b) paid sick days
(c) profit-sharing with all employees
Thank you for your time and consideration.