Imperfect produce start-ups are alleviating landfills while putting more money in farmers' pockets. But what's the long-term impact for food banks, which so often rely on "rejected" fruits and vegetables?
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Complicated business of Ugly Produce
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Ten years ago, cosmetically imperfect produce was not yet cool. Suggestively shaped eggplants didn’t have their own Instagram accounts, and their salvage hadn’t yet become a calling card for sustainability. More significantly, the commercial potential of this “unmarketable” produce had not yet been tapped by food delivery startups like Imperfect, Imperfectly Perfect, Hungry Harvest, and 412 Food Rescue, all appealing to environmentally-minded millennials. But this burgeoning subset and its larger trend of social enterprise companies may have long-term implications of gobbling up the produce supply that food banks so desperately rely on, says L.A. Kitchen president Robert Egger. And it’s already happening.

“Farmers used to be like, ‘Hey man, I can’t sell this, so I’m going to give this to the food bank.’ That’s happening less and less,” he says. “The market forces are driving food waste towards reinvestment and profitability versus down towards charity. What will happen in three years, six years, or nine years demands a vigorous re-examination of our food system.”

During Egger’s three-plus decades as an industry activist, he’s seen a lot of change. For the past six years as founder and president of L.A. Kitchen, his non-profit has utilized imperfect produce—thanks in part to the Imperfect, which donates two to three thousand pounds of fruits and vegetables a week—to cook meals for senior homes, after-school programs, and homeless health programs. In the process, it provides culinary job training to men and women coming out of foster care and incarceration.

Before this, Egger was president of D.C. Central Kitchen for the past 24 years, partnering with the Obamas—who volunteered there twice—and more extensively, activist chef José Andrés, who most recently worked with L.A. Kitchen to feed Southern California wildfire victims. (He also serves on the board of Andrés’s much publicized non-profit, World Central Kitchen, which served over 3 million meals in Puerto Rico.) Now, Egger is turning his attention toward food waste: a $165 billion dollar annual problem in the United States. But farmers, grocery stores, and restaurants haven’t been sitting idly by as they lose profits to it. One farmer’s response, for example, was the creation of baby carrots. In the 1980s, California farmer Mike Yurosek was tired of throwing out 70% of his misshapen fully grown carrots, and decided to sand them smooth and rebrand them instead. They were a hit. Later, Bolthouse Farms took this a step further by making carrot juice from the resulting scraps, Egger says.

Retailers, too, have gotten creative with reject fruits and vegetables. Bargain bin chains like Grocery Outlet have been sourcing imperfect produce since 1946 and selling it at 40% to 70% under conventional grocery store cost. But when all is said and done, a fifth of all fruits and vegetables in North America end up in the landfill because of purely cosmetic reasons, according to a 2011 United Nations report. On a global scale, this TED talk estimates the figure is as high as a third. And the fact remains that over half of all fruits and vegetables grown in North America are never eaten, according to the aforementioned UN report.

Even though there’s more of this rejected produce than we know what to do with—hence the need for startups like Imperfect—the fact remains that despite its abundance, it can be really expensive to even get it off the farm where it’s needed. Some of it goes to animal feed companies; increasingly, some of it goes to pre-cut produce products, which cut the black spot off a butternut squash, chop it up, and turn it into $5.99 packaged butternut squash chunks.

L.A. Kitchen

And, starting in the late aughts, more of it began to go to food banks. This was in response to mounting national public pressure to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables, Egger explains.

“In 2007 Gary Maxworthy started Farm to Family, now run by the California Association of Food Banks,” he says. “This was one of the first excess farm product programs. At first it was free… now much is purchased. Across the country, hundreds of entrepreneurs have realized there’s this source of fresh affordable produce that they can sell to millions of young consumers.”

He continues, “Everybody’s so excited about the environmental aspect, but sadly what the unintended consequences in the future is that when food banks and pantries are pressed harder due to an aging population, that food that used to be donated will be at a premium,” Egger says. “After all, all donated food is lost profits.”

And as it turns out, food banks all over the country find themselves dependent on the very agricultural inefficiencies they’re invested in eradicating. And if our goal is truly to have 0% waste, what will happen when one day we achieve it? As of 2014, there were 46 million food insecure people who relied on food banks. While they might seem dwarfed by the sheer amount of discarded and donatable produce—three billion pounds annually in California alone, according to Imperfect’s website—the fact is that aid-reliant populations are increasing, and produce waste is decreasing.

“Food banks can barely meet the need for an estimated 45 million people who are at risk of hunger,” Egger says, “and here come 70 million baby boomers of whom a significant portion have nothing besides social security, but who will live five or ten years longer than their parents.”

Does that mean that companies like Imperfect shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing? That’s not what Egger is saying. In addition to donating food to L.A. Kitchen, Imperfect supports several of the organization’s initiatives. “They’re great partners for us,” he says. “And I don’t want this to be perceived in the wrong way.”

He’s more thinking about the implications of the burgeoning group of social enterprise companies—of which imperfect produce delivery is just one part. “What I think you’re going to start seeing is salsa companies or ketchup companies that say, ‘We used to make salsa with grade A tomatoes. Why on earth would we do that when we can make it with grade B tomatoes and call it save the Save the Earth salsa?’” he says. “What you’re seeing is industries becoming more aware that food waste cuts into an already very minimal bottom line." All this said and done, what sustainable fruit and vegetable sources should food banks look towards?

Egger is wary of depending on corporate donations. He cites Andrew Fisher’s book Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups. In one of the myriad ironies of the “industrial hunger complex,” the very titans that donate so much to food pantries are often the ones whose underpaid workers are forced to rely on food aid like SNAP benefits, formerly called food stamps.

Amidst this landscape, Egger pins some of his hope on urban gardens. Not the kind so popular among millennials, where people tend to keep the produce, but gardens at community-based programs like the U.S. Veteran Affairs’ West Los Angeles campus, which explores the therapeutic functions of gardening for PTSD-affected veterans. He’s also working with school gardens, and is currently working on sourcing herbs and variable produce—cucumbers, cherry tomatoes—for a packaged food line at Los Angeles International Airport. The program is called Seed to Sky. “LAX does not need a new chicken wrap, but we get it, that’s what you sell,” Egger says.

Credit: Brigitte Blättler/Getty Images

L.A. Kitchen already has a packaged line of apple and beet chips that it sells at LAX, under the arm of its for-profit company, Strong Food—the for-profit aspect facilitates a wider variety of social enterprises, although all profits are funneled back to L.A. Kitchen, which is a non-profit. (Imperfect is currently partnering with L.A. Kitchen to feature these chips in their delivery boxes.) Over the next few months to year, the plan is to supplement salads and wraps with this freshly grown produce from Los Angeles schools and non-profits.

Schools, on the other hand, many perpetually struggling for funding, would receive moderate payments for this produce. Consumers would have the certainty that they’re making a purchase of which all proceeds go directly to L.A. Kitchen—which is very different from a non-profit partnering with a co-packer to create a product, or a company pledging to donate a portion of its proceeds to a separate non-profit. L.A. Kitchen takes pride in doing it all and creating this product and training its chefs all under the same roof. It’s a win-win-win.

While Egger acknowledges that the per-weight contribution of urban gardens is pretty symbolic at this point, they represent the fundamental shift that he’s hoping to make in community kitchens. One towards local community supported partnership, and away from top-down charity.

“The charitable world needs to move beyond mere redistribution [of food waste],” he says. All too often, food banks are most concerned with moving the greatest number of pounds of produce that they can then claim to their donors, he explains—even if a lot of that food is already inedible by the time it leaves their hands.

“Food is something that is very volatile. As soon as you pluck something, it’s decaying. Palettes of food will literally get dropped off in a church parking lot, and poor people will come and sort through all the rotting odds and ends that are left over,” he says.

And what these people don’t end up taking—the produce that ends up in the landfill—shockingly doesn’t even get accounted for in food waste statistics. “No one’s really done a study because no one in our sector really wants to kill the golden calf,” Egger says. That is, the perceived impact of millions of pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables going to food banks.

Food stream issues are complex—and the prospect of a shrinking donatable produce pool is just one of them. Despite the variable quality of donations, L.A. Kitchen probably manages to alchemize it better than most food banks across the country. Thanks to its chef talent pool—men and women formerly in foster care or the prison system, trained under its roof—it preserves housemade banana peel chutney, juices zucchinis and incorporates the remaining pulp into muffins, and vacuum seals broccoli stem coleslaw for easy-eat meals for senior citizens.

All these programs aim to go beyond just feeding people—food banks were supposed to be about so much more than that, Egger says. Through intergenerational partnerships and investing in people’s skills, he’s built a legacy on nourishing clients from the inside out.

“America is full of flowers growing,” he says. “I just long for the garden.”