A Look at Both Sides of the Ugly Produce Environmental Debate

July 31, 2019

The advent of meal kit delivery services, such as Blue Apron and HelloFresh, has caused a lot of people to start talking about waste. While these kits include perfectly portioned components to avoid food spoilage, they also involve a lot of packaging that can potentially be even worse for the planet. The conversation about food delivery and waste has become even more complicated with the growing popularity of “ugly” produce provided by companies like Imperfect Produce and Hungry Harvest. These companies send individuals the “ugly” and imperfect produce rejected by grocery stores at reduced prices to help minimize the amount of food that ends up in landfills. While this setup sounds like a win-win situation, some people are saying that these companies are actually misleading consumers.

The Major Problem of Food Waste in the United States

In the United States, about 30 to 40 percent of the food available for consumption ends up going to waste with the majority of these products being thrown away at homes and at restaurants. At the same time, about 20 billion pounds of produce from farms actually go straight to the landfill because farmers cannot find people to buy it. This issue poses a moral, environmental, and economic problem. Many people have sought out solutions to this issue, which is what has led to the birth of programs such as community-supported agriculture (CSA). A CSA program allows people to invest in local farms upfront and then get a portion of what is harvested regularly throughout the season. Another idea is “ugly” produce. Companies such as Hungry Harvest would collect unsold food from wholesalers and find a home for it by selling it at low prices.

Certainly, Hungry Harvest started off from a place of good intentions. Founded in 2014, the company was launched with a $100,000 investment through Shark Tank. Now, the company delivers to six different cities on the East Coast with plans to expand six-fold in the coming few years. One of the CEO’s business partners left to start Imperfect Produce on the East Coast in 2015. This company now operates in 10 different West Coast cities, as well as in Baltimore and Washington, DC. Like its counterpart, the company is also on track for massive expansion in the next couple years. The expansion of both companies will likely be fueled in part by convenience, as they both deliver produce directly to people’s doorsteps, as well as a drive to do good. Ordering from these companies can help a household to divert hundreds of pounds of food from landfills.

Why Ugly Produce Has Received Some Serious Criticism

Unfortunately, claims that these companies make about diverting food from the landfills may not be entirely accurate. Some people claim that these companies do not rescue food that would go to waste, but instead simply gentrify excess. Farmers typically have excess produce that they cannot sell to grocery stores and will instead sell them for lower prices to restaurants, processors, or canning companies. As a last resort, farmers could also donate to food banks. In other words, the food diverted by these companies was never going to end up in a landfill, some critics say. More worrisome is the fact that these companies may only serve to drive the surplus market and encourage farmers to overproduce, as there are guaranteed buyers. However, this could eventually make the food waste problem even worse if farmers continually overproduce.

How Ugly-Produce Companies Respond to Their Critics

The people behind “ugly” produce are surprised that these criticisms have been launched. Perhaps there is a general mistrust of for-profit, venture-backed companies when it comes to environmentalist missions. For its part, Imperfect Produce claims to have saved more than 30 million pounds of food from waste, as well as 900 million gallons of water. The companies also point to the ways in which their model supports the economy. Compensating farmers fairly for their produce that would otherwise sit on the vine helps to drive jobs while also connecting people across the country with fresh produce at a more affordable price. The founder of Imperfect Produce does concede that 5 to 10 percent of its offerings come from food that did have a market, but also says that the company has also been transparent and upfront about it.

The founder of Hungry Harvest has responded a little more staunchly to criticism. While this company also concedes that it purchases a small amount of produce from big agriculture, the average farm supported by the company is less than 500 acres. Furthermore, the company insists that all food in its boxes would have gone to waste by being left in the field or thrown in the trash. However, this is a hard fact to prove. One farmer that supplies the company says that Hungry Harvest has helped it to recoup losses from produce that was rejected by grocery stores, but that it would also otherwise donate the produce to a food bank. In fact, the farm continues to donate much of it to local food banks. Thus, ugly-produce companies could be cutting into the food supply that would otherwise help people in need.