It showed up on my front porch about 3:30 p.m. on Monday: three apples, four avocados, a couple of oranges and a cucumber. Some Swiss chard, broccoli crowns, oyster mushrooms and jalapenos, along with two of the biggest carrots and four of the smallest sweet potatoes I've ever seen. There was a refreshing lack of packaging or plastic bags; the oyster mushrooms came wrapped in plastic, but otherwise it was just a bunch of produce in a cardboard box. It was all fresh, completely unblemished and made for several delicious meals.
The twist: Everything in that box was originally going to be thrown away before it was packaged and delivered to my door by a service called Imperfect Produce, which is now (finally) available in Dallas.
Imperfect Produce isn't actually new, but it is new to Dallas. The company started in 2015 as one potential solution to America's growing food waste problem. Despite the fact that an estimated 1 in 8 Americans were food insecure in 2017, according to Feeding America, the United States as a whole wastes more than $160 billion in food a year, The New York Times reports. Globally, almost a third of the food we grow is thrown away, either by producers, sellers and distributors or customers themselves. It is, without a doubt, one of the most frustrating problems for a developed nation with growing income inequality, perpetual food deserts and shockingly high rates of food insecurity.
"More than 20 percent of the fruits and vegetables grown in America never make it off the farm because they aren't perfect enough for grocery store standards," according to Imperfect Produce. So the company buys that produce from farmers at a discounted rate and sells it via a web-based delivery service.
The service has slowly been rolling out in cities across the country; Houston, Austin and San Antonio beat us to it, and sustainability-minded Dallasites have been eagerly awaiting its arrival, salivating over Instagram posts from Houston friends fawning over their weekly haul. As of March 11, it's available in a number of Dallas ZIP codes with many more on the way, according to the company. (You can see a list of ZIP codes, and the days they receive deliveries, below).
"Imperfect is thrilled to be launching in Dallas-Fort Worth ... and will be growing and expanding in the area throughout 2019," says Reilly Brock, content manager at Imperfect Produce. "In order to reduce our carbon footprint, we group our deliveries based on ZIP code, making our routes most efficient."
You've got several box options: mixed fruit and vegetables, all fruit, all vegetables and all organic, and boxes run from small (7-9 lbs., $11-17) to extra large (23-25 lbs., $25-$43). You can opt for delivery every week or every other week. We went with the small conventional box for our first order, and it cost $16.81 plus a $4.99 delivery fee. Here's a breakdown of what was in our box and what it cost:
Conventional jalapenos (0.25 lb.): $0.53
Conventional orange (2 ct.): $1.34
Conventional parsley bunch (1 ct.): $0.85
Conventional apples (3 ct.): $1.99
Conventional carrots (1 lb.): $0.75
Conventional broccoli crowns (2 ct.): $2.63
Conventional sweet potatoes (1 lb.): $0.89
Conventional avocados (3 ct.) $2.75
Conventional cucumber (1 ct.): $0.68
Conventional kale bunch (1 ct.): $1.85
Conventional oyster mushroom (1 ct.): $2.55
We compared the prices to those at Tom Thumb via their online delivery website:
Conventional jalapenos: $4.09/lb. For .25 lbs.: $1.02
Conventional naval orange: $1.49/lb. (currently $1.06/lb. with Tom Thumb card)
Conventional parsley bunch: $1.09
Conventional Fuji apples: $2.89/lb.
Conventional carrots, packaged: $1/lb.
Conventional broccoli crowns: $2.29/lb.
Conventional sweet potatoes: $1.59/lb.
Conventional avocados, small: $1.80 each
Conventional cucumber: $0.67 each
Organic kale bunch: $3.60 each (conventional kale bunches weren't available)
Conventional oyster mushroom: N/A
Running the numbers, there's a definite savings with Imperfect Produce in most conventionally grown produce, though the $4.99 delivery fee does make those savings somewhat negligible. But the delivery is a serious convenience, as is the ability to personalize each box — we added a few items to our originally suggested $13 order. Plus, for those who swear by Imperfect Produce, it's nice to know you're buying perfectly good produce that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill. And despite the company's name, you'd be hard-pressed to see much of a difference between this produce and what you would have bought in a grocery store. It all looked — and tasted — perfectly fine.
So where is this produce coming from? On our first order, mostly California and Mexico, and most of the produce wasn't "imperfect" but was actually surplus, according to the website.
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"Imperfect sources as locally as possible, however our central mission is to reduce food waste, so we also source produce from other regions, like California and the Midwest, that would otherwise have gone to waste," Brock says. "In Texas, we source delicious, seasonal citrus from Mission and Wonderful as well as broccoli and carrots from local Texas growers. In the upcoming months, we can expect to source squash, bell peppers, eggplant and tomatoes from our Texas farm partners as well."
So is Imperfect Produce worth it? That depends on a number of factors, from how often (and when) you grocery shop to how particular you are about your produce. If you're ordering in larger quantities, you're likely to see some decent savings. And in the process, you'll be buying up produce that was headed for the landfill. Farmers get paid for produce they otherwise couldn't sell, you get groceries delivered for cheap and the world wastes a little less food — it's hard not to see a win in that.
Who's really winning is another question. Just as Imperfect Produce was getting set to launch in Dallas, crop scientist Sarah Taber wrote a lengthy story in the Washington Post, "Eating Ugly Produce Won't Save the World," that questions the value of ugly food startups in reducing the nation's food waste. More than 80 percent waste occurs in the home, restaurants and stores, she notes, and a lot of "ugly" produce isn't wasted, but sent to food processors where looks aren't as important. Diverting misshapen potatoes from a plant that would turn them into potato flakes to a homeowner who ends up tossing them, uneaten, doesn't alleviate the problem, she suggests.
Current DFW ZIP codes serviced by Imperfect Produce:
Monday delivery: 75201, 75202, 75203, 75204, 75207, 75208, 75211, 75215, 75219
Tuesday delivery: 76102, 76103, 76104, 76106, 76107, 76110, 76111, 76116, 76117, 76137, 76164, 76180
Wednesday delivery: 75001, 75006, 75209, 75220, 75229, 75234, 75235, 75244
Thursday delivery: 75205, 75206, 75210, 75214, 75223, 75225, 75226, 75230, 75240, 75246, 75251
Friday delivery: 75212, 75247, 75019, 75038, 75039, 75060, 75061, 75062, 75063, 76051