Free the ugly produce!: Business-savvy millennials are tackling food waste -- one cosmetically challenged vegetable at a time

More than hunger, the newest efforts to end food waste are concerned with saving the planet

Published August 3, 2015 7:26PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>tBoyan</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(tBoyan via iStock)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetRon Clark is no stranger to food waste. After more than 20 years of working to supply fresh produce to California’s food banks, he knows every point along the route from farm to table where produce gets plucked from the human food chain, for cosmetic reasons, and composted, fed to pigs, or buried in a landfill.  Clark was filling 60-80 truckloads per week with recovered food, bringing 125 million pounds of perfectly healthy produce to hungry food bank clients, by the time he left the food bank system. Today he looks on in awe at a new wave of innovators looking to tackle the problem of food waste. Most of them are 20-somethings fresh out of college, he told me. And they’re using business models, rather than nonprofits, to get it done.

An estimated 40 percent of all food grown never gets eaten by humans, and hunger isn’t the only consequence. Wasted food also represents wasted water, and contributes to global warming, thanks to the methane produced when it rots in the landfill.

But the movement to stop food waste is booming. In 2014, one of the France’s largest food retailers, Intermarche, began selling “ugly” produce at a discount. Store traffic increased 24 percent. In mid-July a petition was initiated at calling on Wal-Mart and Whole Foods to do the same. At press time nearly 8,000 people had signed on to the petition, which was put forth by Jordan Figueiredo of  Figueiredo, whose day job is municipal solid waste manager in the Bay Area, is an anomaly in the movement, both because of his advanced age—36—and because his web page is a nonprofit.

Many, if not most, of the newer efforts to end food waste are just as mission-driven as a food bank, but are sustained by sales of recovered produce, and products made from it, rather than grants and donations. And they are run by kids.

“It really is a millennial movement. It’s so refreshing to see a whole generation of people so passionate and excited about this issue,” Clark told me. And he’s impressed by their ability to bring in dollars, from sales and investors. “They’re money magnets,” he said.

“They aren’t interested in old organizations, which tend to be hierarchical and structured, like corporations. The energy in the new generation doesn’t mix with that culture. They’re going after the food waste issue in different ways, and for slightly different reasons. The millennials certainly care deeply about hunger, but are primarily concerned with saving the planet.”

Wasted food is responsible for about 45 trillion gallons of wasted water, according to 22-year-old Evan Lutz, CEO of Hungry Harvest in Baltimore.  Hungry Harvest recovers surplus produce from farms and wholesalers, and sells it in CSA-style boxes at a steep discount to what non-cosmetically-challenged produce would cost. For each box sold, a healthy meal is donated to someone in need. Lutz sees his work as an inevitable result of a profoundly unsustainable situation.

“Our society can’t sustain itself when 6 billion pounds of produce is wasted annually, while 51 million Americans are food-insecure,” he told me.

And despite his lofty ambitions, Lutz has no reservations about turning a profit on his work. “We are for-profit so we can scale in a sustainable way.” Hungry Harvest recently secured some investments that “exceeded our expectations,” Lutz says.

When speaking with these young, business-savvy entrepreneurs, you hear a lot of economic jargon, like “scaling,” “aggregate,” and “resource constrained.” You also hear words like “shocked, aghast, insane, and disgusted,” as they recount their first glimpse of the enormity of the food waste problem.

“It’s appalling. It’s insane. It makes you want to do something about it,” recalls Claire Cummings, 25, of her first farm-level glimpse of food waste. Cummings is the Waste Specialist for Bon Appetit Management Company, a national restaurant company that operates more than 650 cafes in 33 states. The Waste Specialist position was created for Cummings, who was fresh out of Bon Appetit’s fellowship program. In partnership with Compass Group, the parent company, she quickly spearheaded the campaign called Imperfectly Delicious Produce, which searches for ways to recover cosmetically challenged produce that would otherwise have been wasted, and get it into the hands of its chefs. Just a year in, the program has been implemented in 10 states. And the plan is to bring recovered produce to all of their accounts, Cummings told me.

“We are not exclusively going after foods that already have a secondary market, such as tomatoes or lemons for juice,” she told me. “We are looking at the food that is truly getting wasted. ”

With the funding and organizational clout of a major corporation behind her, Cummings has made impressive strides. And while there are definitely cost savings in going this route—they average about 38 percent, she says—that isn’t why they are doing it. “We are driven by the desire to put money back in the pockets of farmers and save this perfectly good produce from going to waste.” Nonetheless, those favorable economics are nonetheless an important part of why such a diversity of new food recovery startups are flourishing.

On the other coast, a Bay Area start-up called Revive Foods began making jam out of recovered produce about a year ago. Co-founder Zoe Wong came from a nonprofit background, where, she says, "I felt frustrated constantly having to rely on donations in the nonprofit world and wanted to have the ability to be financially sustainable so I could get stuff done."

The business was going well, but she and co-founder Kay Feker weren’t satisfied.

“We realized that remaining a consumer product food business was going to be tough to scale from an impact perspective,” Wong told me. “By pivoting to focus on selling recovered produce to food businesses, we would be by diverting so much more produce from going to waste streams.”

In their new model, recovered produce will be sorted and stabilized—for example, by freezing—for sale to food businesses like caterers, juicers, and restaurants. One yet-unnamed “major baby food company,” she told me, is “super interested in the possibility of building out a dedicated product line made from our recovered produce.”

Wong and Feker share space with another Oakland-based start-up called Imperfect, which aims to create the first national brand of ugly produce. A major step in that direction was recently taken in the form of a pilot project called Real Good. On July 11, ten outlets of the Sacramento-based supermarket chain Raley’s began selling cosmetically challenged produce at a discount. If it goes well, they hope to expand the program to all 127 Raley’s stores, Imperfect co-founder and CEO Ben Simon explained. Ultimately, they want their Imperfect produce in every store, nationwide.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan. 

By Ari LeVaux


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Climate Change Food Waste Millennials