Beautiful in Its Own Way: How Ben Simon Is Saving the World's Ugly Fruits and Vegetables

Photo: © Uli Westphal

Activism has come front and center at college campuses all over America, sometimes for important reasons, sometimes because the chicken in the dining hall isn't up to par. But years before students engaged in the protests and hashtag wars that currently dominate the media's coverage of the college experience, Ben Simon started a movement at the University of Maryland focused on a topic that, while not as flashy as some you've heard about, is just as important.

Six billion pounds a year—that's the number cited by Simon (and Feeding America) as the amount of produce that is either thrown away or never picked in America. In 2010, the number 6 billion didn't mean anything to Simon; neither, really, did the idea of food waste. But a late lunch at the dining hall began a process that would eventually push Simon to lead the charge against the pernicious problem of wasted food.

"Some of my friends and I were in an organization focused on hunger and homelessness, and heard rumors that the dining hall [at the University of Maryland] was throwing out a lot of food every day. One day we were in the pizza and pasta line five minutes before closing … and asked what they were going to do with the food that was left. The guy behind the counter said they were going to throw it away. That they had to."

It turns out that this wasn't true. Uneaten food doesn't need to be thrown away. Simon said he isn't sure where the misconception comes from, but he discovered that it has invaded almost every aspect of the food service industry. "I've talked to grocery store managers and restaurant personnel in all 50 states. They all think the same thing."

Shortly after he discovered the pizza and pasta the dining hall was throwing away, he convinced UM's dining services to let him and several other students "recover" much of the uneaten food. Within a week, Simon and his Food Recovery Network were taking in hundreds of pounds of food a night, which they donated to happy food aid agencies in the Washington, D.C., area. What began with one night of food collection a week on one campus grew into network that is now 165 chapters strong on campuses all over the country. For Simon, it led to a new career.

After finding success with the recover and donate model, Simon wanted to expand the Food Recovery Network's mission "recovered food CSA." His plan was to buy up food about to be thrown away at the end of the day at a local farmers' market, pack it up and send it to subscribers. The FRN board decided his plan wasn't right for the group, so Simon did what any good socially conscious entrepreneur does: He launched a start-up.

During a conference on food waste in California, Simon had a serendipitous meeting with Ron Clark, who had spent years helping get "ugly" produce—fruits and vegetables deemed unfit for the market—into the stomachs of hungry people through the California Association of Food Banks. Clark introduced Simon to California pack houses, which opened Simon's eyes to the jaw-dropping scale on which the agriculture system in America really runs. "You always wonder where food comes from," Simon told me. "Then you visit the Central Valley in California and you get it. The pack houses will sort a million pounds of sweet potatoes a day. 500,000 pounds of kiwis. 15 percent of that just goes to waste. They told me the wasted food was 'byproduct.' I said to them, 'that's not byproduct. That's produce."

With the help of Clark and his cofounder Ben Chessler, Simon launched Imperfect Produce last year—a reimagining of the recovered food CSA on a grander scale. As I learned when I talked with Chessler, Imperfect will collect hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce and estimate that each pound they sell will save between 25 to 50 gallons of water.

The company is already delivering boxes of fruits and vegetables to homes in California's East Bay that grocery stores consider too small, too big or too strangely shaped to sell, and they are just about to launch delivery all over San Francisco. But Simon has his sights set on developing an entire line of ugly produce that will get grocery store shelf space along with its prettier cousins. "France, Germany, Canada—they all have ugly produce lines already. I see enormous potential here to prevent an enormous amount of food waste." And with 6 billion pounds to choose from, he still has plenty of room to grow.

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