Think of the last time you shopped for food. Those sliding glass doors open, and you're greeted by orderly rows of apples, pears and leafy green lettuce.
That's because the supermarket produce aisle is like a popular nightclub — not everyone gets in.
"There's a reason that the grocery store sets up the produce at the front," says Tony Masco, VP of Midwest Operations at Imperfect Produce. "Because it's beautiful! The colors, and how it pops."
Because of those beauty standards, farms toss or compost a whopping 20 billion pounds of produce each year. Much of that waste is fruits and vegetables that don't meet grocery store desires for size or shape.
"We buy the stuff that doesn't make the cut," explains Masco, "And we sell it at a discounted price to people's homes."
Imperfect Produce has been around since 2015, appealing to customers by touting the environmental benefits of preventing food waste. Subscribers sign up, choose organic or conventional, and get a weekly box of funny looking food on their doorstep. A small box with seven to nine pounds of food runs $11 to $13, and prices go up from there. Companies like Hungry Harvest and Misfits Market offer a similar service.
In our subscription-box-loving age, this has proven to be smart business. Imperfect Produce is up and running in 19 metro areas and expanding quickly. The company plans to be in at least 30 markets by the end of the year. It launched in Dallas-Fort Worth in March, and it's been in Austin, Houston and San Antonio for a while.
Masco showed me around the Dallas warehouse the week it opened. Customers, he explained, can customize boxes. On offer this week: Husky leeks, slightly discolored bok choy, tiny heads of garlic and more. All fresh ... just not exactly picture perfect.
Masco hands me a massive carrot I'd guess weighs 2 pounds.
"It doesn't have the beautiful Bugs Bunny green on the top," he says. "It's nicked up and scarred. But, guess what. When you cut it up, you can use this carrot for your whole party!"
Masco stresses: It may be ugly, but it's still delicious.
"It doesn't effect the taste. If you're looking for something big and bold, you're still going to get it," he says.
The service may sound a lot like a CSA, community supported agriculture. But while they do source a bit from local farmers, most of the food comes from big agribusiness producers.
"We're growing enough food to feed everybody, and yet we have 40 million Americans struggling with food insecurity, in large part because of how much food we're wasting," explains Imperfect Produce co-founder and CEO Ben Simon.
He says the company has diverted millions of pounds of food from the landfill. Reducing food waste has been a passion of his since college.
"It's a totally tragic issue, and it's actually one of the largest drivers of climate change," says Simon.
But food waste experts hope those warm fuzzies don't distract consumers from the bigger picture. Farms — and the ugly or extra produce they have trouble selling — only accounts for about 16% of the country's food waste.
"So companies like Imperfect Produce are really focusing in on that 16%," says Elizabeth Balkan, Food Waste Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Balkan says she's enthusiastic about what these subscription box startups are doing, but emphasizes it's only part of the puzzle. A whopping 43% of food waste, she explains, is generated in our homes.
"The bigger point is, it's great for people to do one thing. It's great that people are adapting new ideas and new practices," says Balkan. "But if, at the end of the day, 50% of that Imperfect Produce box ultimately goes into the bin, then what really have we accomplished?"
To really solve the food waste problem, Balkan says consumers must change habits so we throw away less.
"There's a whole range of things beyond just your consumer choices that can really be extremely powerful in terms of moving the needle on your individual and household waste generation," she says.
These include doing smaller grocery store runs more frequently, eating leftovers and storing food properly.
Still, ugly produce could become big business. ReFED, a food waste reduction nonprofit, estimates companies working with off-grade produce could generate more than $275 million a year, and find homes 266 tons of of fruits and vegetables.