Learn Why the Business of Ugly Produce Is So Complicated
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.
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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.