Industry Insider Interview:
Roopam Lunia of ImperfectProduce.com
Roopam Lunia discusses the mission of ImperfectProduce.com, the future of food waste, and "redefining the beauty of produce".
Imperfect produce, based out of Oakland, Ca, transforms a movement into a reality, sourcing directly from California farmers the fruits and vegetables slated for waste because of their "cosmetic challenges," boxing them up and delivering them to customers at an affordable price (30% off).
Your project originated on college campuses , how much of your project today is devoted to college campuses versus other focuses?
While the idea has it's seed in our CEO Ben Simon's pioneering work with the Food Recovery Network, and some of our focus is on students who both need and could benefit from a variety of affordable, fresh fruits and vegetables in their diets, the majority of our work focuses on those communities who have limited access to fruits and vegetables (those who live in the food deserts or in food insecure areas).
We are actively looking to create partnerships with other food justice/activism groups in the local area to best use already paved pathways to effectively move the produce off of the farms and onto tables.
We are also opening lines with employers/offices to help in their employee health and wellness initiatives, schools, religious institutions and residential communities.
How will produce waste change globally in the coming years?
As stated by Ben Simon in his Op-ED in US NEWS and WORLD REPORT:
On September 16th, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsak and EPA Deputy Administrator Stan Meiburg announced a goal to cut food waste in half by 2030, an ambitious goal.
But there are major gaps and much work to be done at the federal level to encourage action among civil society.
First and foremost, the government can conduct more thorough research on this deep and complex issue. In order for food waste entrepreneurs to meet the government's goal, we need better data.
There are also policies our federal government urgently needs to enact. Currently, only the biggest businesses can take advantage of the enhanced tax deduction for donating surplus food, while smaller businesses and most farmers are left out of the picture.
The lack of a tax write-off that businesses can depend on to defray the costs of recovery and donation directly results in unfathomable tons of food wasted each year. Long-standing organizations like City Harvest, DC Central Kitchen and Feeding America continue to do amazing work to recover surplus food.
Over the past few years, I've watched as hundreds of startups have emerged seeking innovative approaches to reducing wasted food. Today, almost every major city has a food recovery program.While these food recovery programs are invaluable, most are under-resourced and bump into corporate and government policy problems on a regular basis.
The USDA and EPA have shown courage and leadership, and this ambitious goal is a strong first step to create a sense of urgency among the public. Now, we need these same leaders to follow up with details, benchmarks and equally bold policy changes to show they are serious about meeting their goal.
What is the biggest challenge your project faces right now?
Traditionally, consumers have looked at farm boxes and CSA's as more of a high-end service and are confused at the implications of being offered 12-15 lbs of produce for just $12 - they want to know what is "wrong" with the produce that we are able to offer it at such an affordable price. We often have to reassure them that the produce is more than fine, in fact, because we source from local farms, it is often fresher and tastier than what they would find at their local stores!
Moreover, with "organic" as an entrenched buzzword, consumers are torn between the environmental sustainability of conventional farms and/or organic consumption. We remind them that it is on the larger, conventional farms that foodwaste happens.
What we like to tell our customer base is that unless they are 100 percent organic (and few are), what they are spending with us is a great supplement with produce that is easily peelable/washable. Moreover, we remind them of their part in "veggie rescue," not only saving the beautiful produce from waste, but also saving the water that went into it from going to waste
What is your next mission / goal? How can our readers help you achieve this mission or goal?
In closing the loop on the food that would be wasted on farms, not only are we supporting farmers to find a market for all of the food they grow, saving water, and reducing methane emissions, we are also opening the floodgates on the 6 billion pounds per year of fresh produce so they may land on people's tables.
Our goal is to "redefine beauty in produce," that is, to encourage people to slow down and to really look at their fruits and vegetables and understand it really is what's on the inside that matters. Once there is a cultural shift away from the search from physical perfection to, dare we say, natural Imperfect selection, farmers will be able to make full use of all of the energy, water, and money invested in the food they grow and sustain themselves while people will truly be practicing what they preach: "beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
Your readers can help achieve this goal by actively looking for and buying "ugly" produce, by asking their local grocery stores and markets to carry it, by supporting farmers markets and of course, by supporting businesses like Imperfect with their dollar or their words on or offline.