A Hungry Harvest produce delivery Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Within the last five years, so-called ugly produce has become the darling of the socially conscious food industry, and the D.C. region has in large part been the birthplace of the trend. 

Ugly produce goes by other terms, too—imperfect, flawed, off-grade, seconds, even the politically correct “aesthetically challenged.” They all describe fruits and vegetables that traditionally would go to waste because grocery stores and consumers wouldn’t buy them because of blemishes or bumps. 

Once considered castoffs, ugly produce is now in style, and three of the country’s most successful ugly produce companies, Imperfect Produce, Hungry Harvest, and Misfit Juicery, have roots in the area. All three companies share similar goals—using ugly produce to fight food waste and make a profit.

More than 20 percent of domestic fruits and vegetables “never make it off the farm because they aren’t perfect enough for grocery store standards,” according to Imperfect Produce, a company that delivers discounted produce on the West Coast and in the Midwest. They say grocery stores’ unwillingness to buy edible and healthful produce that is misshapen or blemished results in billions of pounds of wasted produce every year.

The company, which now operates out of San Francisco, was founded by Ben Simon, who first started working to fight food waste as a student at the University of Maryland, where he launched Food Recovery Network, a multi-campus organization that collects leftovers from school cafeterias.

Like Simon, the founders of Misfit Juicery, which sells cold-pressed juice made from grocery-store rejects, and Hungry Harvest, which sells produce delivery subscriptions in the region, first began fighting food waste from their dorm rooms. The founders of Misfit Juicery, Ann Yang and Phil Wong, conceived of the idea while at Georgetown University. Hungry Harvest founder Evan Lutz was also a University of Maryland student.

The ambitious, entrepreneurial spirit that empowers these young founders makes Robert Egger, the founder of local non-profit DC Central Kitchen, hesitate to voice his concerns about the burgeoning ugly produce business. When he does voice those concerns, it’s with significant qualifications. 

“I’m always reluctant to diminish a younger generations’ new ideas because that’s what happened to me,” Egger says. 

But he wonders if greater demand for ugly produce could eventually lead to less access to fruits and vegetables for those in need.

Egger built DC Central Kitchen into the massive community kitchen that it is today. A team of staff members and volunteers work to serve three million meals per year made from donated food and items purchased directly from growers to area homeless shelters, schools, and nonprofits. In 2012, Egger left D.C. to open a similar nonprofit in California,  L.A. Kitchen.

“People would say, ‘Robert, shut the fuck up,’” Egger recalls. “We throw away billions of pounds of produce, that’s not going to go anywhere soon. People say, we will worry about that in 10 years.” 

But Egger thinks of himself as someone who foresees the future of the food industry.

“There was always an inevitable moment of declining donations, but it’s being accelerated by the sudden, unexpected surge in interest of millennials,” he says. “Whether it’s the kind of rudimentary efforts we see now, whether it’s the industry itself getting more sophisticated, or it’s rapidly growing science—I see a much more expedited process where food waste will disappear.”

For others working in the industry, that moment when food waste disappears is so far off as to be unimaginable—the supply of discarded fruits and vegetables is simply too great.

“There’s so much produce out there that doesn’t find a home that there are places for it to go in all cycles of the supply chain and value stream,” says Lutz, the founder of Hungry Harvest. “In the food industry, everybody needs to collectively reduce waste in more capacities than one.”

According to Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED), 63 million tons of food goes to waste every year. Ten million tons, or 16 percent, of that waste happens at the first stage of the supply chain—on the farm. One of the solutions ReFED recommends is accepting and integrating ugly produce into the food system. 

That step alone would slow climate change by diverting 266,000 tons of waste away from landfills and on-farm losses, reducing greenhouse gases by 422,000 tons and saving 39 billion gallons of water every year, according to ReFED.

Egger believes framing food waste as bad for the Earth signals a paradigm shift. “My generation looked at food waste as a supply that could feed the poor,” he says. “The younger generation looks at it as saving the planet.” 

That means that instead of redirecting surplus food from the landfill to food banks, the long term goal is no surplus at all. In that scenario, would food banks still have access to healthful fruits and vegetables that underserved communities need for nourishment? 

Jody Tick, the chief operating officer of Capital Area Food Bank, says she isn’t concerned about that outcome. It’s the region’s largest anti-hunger organization and feeds 540,000 people each year. “We love that ugly fruit is getting its due and we think it can actually provide more access to fruits and vegetables rather than less,” she says. “What we wouldn’t want to see is that ugly fruits and vegetables become so in vogue that they’re out of reach financially for most people.”

Capital Area Food Bank, as well as other anti-hunger organizations in the region including Martha’s Table and DC Central Kitchen, purchase the majority of the produce they distribute to those in need from regional farmers and distributors. Even though the demand for second-rate produce is growing, they say there’s enough to go around for everyone. 

“What we say to our growers is take your top quality and get the best price you can for it,” Tick says. “Take it to the Safeways, the Giants, the restaurants—but do us the effort and harvest your second. No farmer plans to grow seconds, but it is just the nature of the beast …  We want to help grow the seconds market.”

Tick also sees the value in ugly produce companies changing the way people think about their food. “As a society, we need to focus less on the perfectly red apple, and more on the nutrition of the fruit,” she says. “And ugly fruits can bring that to bear, as long as we’re getting more from the field and it’s not a cost that puts it out of reach for most people. We see this as more of a glass half-full.”

This year marks the fifth season that Capital Area Food Bank is partnering with farms throughout the region for the Fruits and Vegetables Fund for Greater Washington program. The food bank orders a set quantity of specific items from each farm at a predetermined, discounted price, then picks up and distributes the harvest. The program is beneficial for both the food bank and the farmers.

“Most growers just assume, oh you want a donation,” Tick says. “No, we want to make it worth your while to take it out of the greenhouse. When you start having those types of conversations, different possibilities open up.”

The logistical cost of transporting the food is why so much produce that can’t be sold ends up going to waste rather than to those in need—and where socially conscious food companies can step in.

“Typically farmers are very resource-strapped, they don’t have a ton of capital, so food bank donations are typically their very last resort, and only if they have the time and the resources to go about doing that,” says Lutz, the Hungry Harvest founder. 

According to Lutz, Hungry Harvest intentionally over-orders so that it can donate the excess produce, an average of 1,000-2,000 pounds per week, to food banks. The Manna Food Center in Montgomery County is a regular recipient.

In January, the company ended up with a truckload, or 24 pallets, of cabbage that was rejected by grocery stores for having too much dirt. That was too much cabbage for the subscription delivery service—each box would have had three heads of cabbage—so the supply went to a Maryland food bank.

The company also runs weekly Produce in a SNAP markets throughout Baltimore, where people can purchase discount produce using SNAP benefits.

“It’s part of our mission,” says Lutz. “The last thing we want to do is take away produce from a subset of the population that needs it most.”

The food banks that Hungry Harvest donates to vary week to week, but Lutz says nearly every local one has been a recipient since the company’s inception, including Egger’s DC Central Kitchen. Across the country in California, Imperfect Produce is a major partner and donor for L.A. Kitchen.

For now, most companies marketing ugly produce, although for-profit, are mission-centric. But Egger worries about the moment when the trend becomes so popular that other less socially-conscious companies start to see the profitability and marketing appeal.

“It went from free-if-you-could-come-get-it, to a reduced price,” Egger says. “Now we are actually seeing a rising market value. Not on a large scale. But it’s coming.”