ST. LOUIS — An apple is an apple, whether it’s smooth and shiny or bumpy and blotchy.
That’s the message of purveyors of so-called ugly produce, which include local grocers, small farmers and San Francisco-based Imperfect Produce.
As of this month, St. Louis is the 24th city to be added to Imperfect Produce’s roster since the food delivery service was founded four years ago. Eight of its 1,000 employees are now based out of a warehouse in Olivette, said Reilly Brock, content manager at Imperfect.
Imperfect subscriptions include seasonal fruits and vegetables that are deemed less-than-desirable for traditional markets because of their size, shape or coloring.
Most retailers want unblemished, homogeneous produce to maintain a consistent appearance in displays and to appeal to customers accustomed to shopping for plump red strawberries and perfectly round cantaloupes.
But that leaves billions of pounds of food to waste on farms. Some is sold for juice or other processed products — which tend to yield less revenue. Some is used as animal feed; some is tilled back into the field.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates total food waste at between 30% and 40% of supply, or approximately 133 billion pounds of food a year. Unsold farm crops account for about 20% of that; the rest happens at the retail or consumer level.
Rotting food releases methane and other gases, which are responsible for 8% of global greenhouse emissions, according to the United Nations.
Imperfect Produce sources from more than 200 farms across the country to “rescue” cracked carrots, pock-marked peppers and asymmetrical apples.
The price per box ranges from about $15 to $50, depending on size and whether the contents are certified organic. The boxes themselves are recyclable and compostable; customers can select what is included in the delivery each week. Brock said the cost is generally 30% cheaper than comparable items at retail.
Recently, Imperfect Produce expanded its offerings to include staple items such as nuts, dried fruits and beans, and packaged foods that grocers had overstocked or rejected for being too close to their “best by” date.
“It’s a way to reduce food waste, support farmers, invest in your own health and save money,” Brock said. “That’s a lot of different benefits all in one box.”
Imperfect Produce isn’t the only business capitalizing on a growing awareness of the consequences of food waste.
Misfits, an offshoot of Alberta, Canada-based Robinson Fresh, are available in about 300 groceries in the U.S. Kroger sells its own line called Pickuliar Picks. Another subscription service, Hungry Harvest, was featured on the TV show “Shark Tank” and delivers to several cities on the East Coast.
At Local Harvest Grocery just south of Tower Grove Park, less-than-photogenic fruits and veggies are labeled with a bright orange sticker. The neighborhood market has been promoting its “marked down to sell fast” items for the past few years.
Produce manager Rebecca Widzer said the practice has reduced the amount of food the store has to compost. Some customers come in looking for orange-stickered items; others just appreciate a good bargain, she said.
“It’s all part of that bigger sustainability piece,” said Widzer. “People realign their expectation of what produce should look like.”
But the sale of ugly produce has not been embraced everywhere. A partnership between Imperfect Produce and Whole Foods petered out recently. Walmart, Meijer and Price Chopper, among other regional and national chains, have attempted to sell blemished produce alongside picture-perfect options, only to drop the ugly fruits and vegetables when sales proved sluggish.
Imperfect Produce and other subscription services have drawn criticism over their sourcing, which they do not fully disclose, except to say that they try to partner with farms close to their delivery cities whenever possible.
Some of the food in the St. Louis boxes will come from Go-Ro Fresh Farm in Union, Illinois, a distance of more than 300 miles; and Family Farm Fresh Co-Op in Rockville, Indiana, just under 200 miles away.
“I appreciate the educational element of what Imperfect Produce is trying to do,” said Jenn DeRose, manager of Known and Grown STL, a new project of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the St. Louis Food Policy Coalition.
“There’s an unrealistic image of what produce should look like. … People just need to know: Don’t shy away from vegetables that are twisty or weird. They’re wonderful.”
Still, she has reservations about the delivery service. There’s the carbon footprint of the transportation, which usually exceeds the 150-mile radius that Known and Grown STL counts as local. And there’s the competition with small farms that get by on community-supported agriculture, food shares purchased throughout the growing season.
“If you sign up for a CSA, you’re directly supporting local farms that are already sustainable,” DeRose said, though she acknowledged that it can be difficult to know where to find such places.
That’s why Known and Grown came into being. Part of the nonprofit’s aim is to serve as a resource to promote local farms that are using environmentally responsible practices.
“It’s complicated,” said DeRose. “I’m not saying (Imperfect Produce) is bad. I’m just hoping that people look for local sustainably raised produce that’s imperfect.”