Words by Faith E. Briggs
Images by Kenny Hamlett
“Everything is so good!!”
This is the only thing being mumbled at the table throughout dinner. There are seven people and yet we are eating in relative silence, occasionally interrupted by “Pass the chard, please.” “These mushrooms are insane!” “Any more beet hummus?”
We are eating a meal cooked with ingredients provided by Imperfect Produce, a subscription box service that works directly with farms to source produce deemed “too ugly” for grocery stores and deliver it more affordable right to your doorstep. Fascinated by this idea, we hopped on the phone with Reilly Brock, content manager with Imperfect.
“One in five fruits and vegetables don’t make it off the farm. Based on cosmetic standards they are deemed unfit for sale,” explains Reilly.
“Money that could be going to farmers is not. Food that could be feeding people isn’t. Resources such as water, sunshine, and labor are being wasted.” With that in mind the CEO, Ben Simon, started Imperfect Produce.
When I get my boxes of produce delivered I look inside, ready to check out the abnormal and super weird fruit and veggies sent my way. To be honest, I’m kind of disappointed. I can’t seem to figure out what’s imperfect about most of what has been sent. The nectarines are a bit small, the broccolini is a bit yellow but not at all wilted, some of the mushrooms aren’t perfectly formed, the chard is huge, like fan Queen Cleopatra with palm fronds large, but overall, it’s pretty normal looking. And it’s an amazing array of color, so I can’t help but start thinking about which socks to wear to dinner.
Reilly explains the most common reasons that produce would be deemed imperfect.
“The big elephant in the room in terms of appearance is size. All produce is ranked on case count. So a large avocado is 38 and a medium is closer to 40, that is how many can fit in a box going to a grocery. Stores want to buy uniform fruits to make uniform displays. That means the small stuff and the big stuff doesn’t have a market.”
I never thought that those perfectly stacked avocados were the victors that made it to the store. For anyone that’s ever knocked over a pyramid of fruit, we now know the back-story.
The more I speak with Reilly, the more I really like Imperfect Produce. I like the way he talks about empowering and liberating people in the kitchen. It’s a way of thinking about food that I personally appreciate.
“A lot of people grow up only seeing produce in the supermarket, the second you grow your own bell pepper or visit a friend that has a lemon tree you start to understand that this stuff comes in an array of shapes and size. There are tiny avocados and huge grapefruits. They’re all tasty at the end of the day, size doesn’t determine flavor.”
As I’m shoveling handfuls of blueberries in my mouth days later, I completely agree.
“We’re all visual shoppers and that’s not a bad thing but we do need to give ourselves context. Part of our job at Imperfect is educating people that this stuff comes in different shapes and size. The most common knee-jerk reaction is that it must be Frankenfood or that it must be GMO. It’s actually abnormal to see everything the same size and color. It’s like walking down the street and having everyone look the exact same. That would be weird, but we’re so used to supermarkets so we have no idea we’ve just been in an abnormal context.”
Is anyone else now thinking about The Matrix?! I feel like the plug has been pulled and I’m going to be experiencing glitches the next time I go grocery shopping…and I’m late to the game. I first heard about Imperfect from a few friends who use the service in Portland, Oregon. So I decided to try it out. I order a family size box and call them up to plan dinner.
What arrives: tons of carrots, blueberries and strawberries, beets and mushrooms, nectarines, broccolini, tomatoes and swiss chard. I hit Pinterest for recipe ideas, but find that I’m usually going with the basics: chop, douse in olive oil, add salt and pepper and roast, grill or sauté. When Lynsey texts asking if I need anything, I’ve just run out of olive oil. “I’ll bring the Imperfect Produce olive oil,” she responds. I had no idea they make that too!
Here’s how the boxes work:
Each week the small box has 8-10lbs of produce. You can subscribe to a box size that fits your household. A bigger family box, for example, is closer to 20 lbs if you have a lot of mouths to feed. You can log onto the website each week before your scheduled delivery and customize, so you can take things out or stock up on something specific depending on what you want to make.
“It’s a great way to visualize your week ahead and a good meal planning tool,” says Reilly. “We have recipes on the website and in the email newsletter. We also use our instagram and stories there as a platform for touchpoints about food. Every Wednesday we do ‘What do I do with this Wednesday?’ We’ll talk about what to do with a rutabaga or rhubarb, in case maybe you didn’t know what to do with them. It can be intimidating – so basic stuff like that can help liberate people and make them feel excited.”
In addition to wanting to get people excited about food, Imperfect Produce is trying to get closer to being zero waste themselves, so most food comes loose, packed only in brown paper bags or little mesh bags. They are mindful of cardboard etc. “We really try to keep it minimal and only use what will help keep the product fresh and safe from being damaged by other produce.”
One of my favorite things to do is cooking with friends and so having produce delivered and recipe ideas is a great excuse to do that. Of course, we love all the colors and so it turns into a fun sock shoot too…but, doesn’t everything?!
We like to find companies that are likeminded about creating community, this was a super fun reason to eat in and hang out. Imperfect Produce is an awesome way to think about what we’re consuming to better fuel our everyday life, not to mention our runs, rides and other adventures. Seriously, they did not ask us to do this…we just really like food.
Final thoughts from Reilly?
“The feedback we get is really inspiring. We hear about people teaching their kids how to cook or about beauty standards in the world based on our produce. They are turning their diet around and eating better. Once you have produce in your house, you use it, it forces you to get creative. If you don’t know how to cook it you have to learn. It kind of forces you out of the nest in a good way. People say they feel excited about cooking like they’re on the TV show Chopped. We also teach people about seasonality. Part of what we are doing is regaining our relationship and knowledge with food. That’s really gratifying and it’s something that all of us love. That’s very motivating for us as a company.”
Big thank you to our dinner buddies, sock models, chefs and grillmasters: Chelsea Bauch, Michael Orenstein, Dannielle McNeilly, Brenden Cohen, Lynsey Christensen, and Kenny Hamlett.