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The Murky Ethics of the Ugly-Produce Business

America’s wonkiest fruits and vegetables have ignited a food war.

The Atlantic

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The middle strawberry is probably just as sweet. Photo by Jennifer A. Smith / Getty.

Do you know what baby carrots actually are?

For me, the baby-carrot jig was up a couple years ago. I’m not sure what I’d believed about them previously: Were they actual babies? Were they a “baby” breed of small adult carrots? I certainly hadn’t understood them to be carrot nuggets, whittled out of big, ugly carrots that many people wouldn’t buy in their natural state.

I’ve never lived in a world that wanted me to think about how the carrots got made. Since the early 1980s, scores of smaller American agricultural companies have been driven out of business or gobbled up by Big-Ag conglomerates. That I hadn’t thought much about my little carrots meant the system had worked as intended for the type of consumer I am (affluent, urban) and helped obscure the leviathan of the American food-supply chain, which includes everything from commercial growers and processors like Dole and Kraft Heinz down to local farmers’ markets and food banks.

But as shoppers change, so must the systems that serve them. Younger, socially conscious Americans and their concerns about sustainability have turned some unflattering attention toward the food industry. One of the most popularly cited problems is the amount of produce that goes entirely unconsumed in the developed world. By some estimations, it’s more than half. To combat that, a new class of for-profit start-ups has emerged: ugly-produce boxes. Companies like Misfits Market, Imperfect Produce, and Hungry Harvest aim to fill the logistical gaps and provide new markets for growers by buying up farmers’ “ugly” or excess produce and shipping it directly to your doorstep, often by subscription. They’re the rescue dogs of vegetation.

If successful, ugly-produce companies could help with the vanishingly thin margins faced by smaller-scale growers and expand access to fresh food. But not everyone is buying it: Food-justice advocates argue that profit-based solutions are unequipped to do battle against food inequality, and that even well-meaning companies could do real harm to community organizations. Depending on who you ask, ugly produce is either the salvation or destruction of America’s food system. The reality of its potential impact might be a little more complicated, with start-ups profiting from the food system’s structural problems while also providing real, material good for working-class people.

It seems as though “ugly” produce companies didn’t anticipate the criticism they’ve received. On a fundamental level, some researchers question whether Americans’ understanding of food waste as a crisis actually reflects the problem at hand. Last week on Twitter, the crop scientist Sarah Taber wrote a long thread arguing that ugly produce isn’t the problem or solution. “The food system is a hot mess but using ugly produce is one thing it’s actually really good at,” she says in the thread. In her estimation, my carrot nuggets are proof of concept: Odd produce might not go to Whole Foods, but much of it still does go to stores that serve working-class people, or gets sent to processors who turn it into salsa or apple juice. (Taber did not return a request for comment.)

The vast majority of American produce does indeed make it to a packinghouse for processing and distribution, but farmers point out that efficiency varies wildly depending on what kind of producer you are. According to David Earle, the business manager for the farm collective Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative, in Pennsylvania, around 20 percent of the produce from his organization’s small growers doesn’t meet stringent grocery-store or restaurant standards. “If they don’t sell because we don’t have an outlet and we have too much product, they’d likely just go bad,” he says.

Dana Gunders, a food-sustainability researcher who wrote the Natural Resources Defense Council’s 2012 report on food waste, says that Tuscarora’s problem is not unique for growers of its size. “You wind up with a situation at times where it actually does not make financial sense to harvest the product,” she says. Tuscarora has started distributing its excess produce through the ugly-produce-box company Misfits Market, and Earle says it’s been a boon to the business. “It’s good for us. It’s good for the farmer who’s not getting nothing for the product,” he says. “Misfits Market gave us an outlet to move these products and not just feed them to the cows.”

Other farmers are less enthusiastic. Terra Organics, based in Washington, shut down at the end of last year, and its owners cited the emergence of ugly-produce companies as among the reasons it was going out of business. In an interview with The New Republic, Imperfect Produce, the start-up that serves Terra Organics’ former community, conceded that it occasionally works with industrial-scale producers like Dole to source food, which critics say can make these start-ups an ally of exactly the food system that creates waste and hunger in the first place. If affluent consumers can feel as if they’re making ethical purchases while enjoying the savings and convenience of wonky vegetables delivered from commercial producers, they might be less likely to buy from local producers and cooperatives.

“People have been struggling for a couple decades now to bring their food system under local control,” says Eric Holt-Giménez, the executive director of the food-justice organization Food First. “There’s no indication [the ugly-produce movement] helps to do that at all.” Holt-Giménez questions whether it would even be possible to run an ugly-produce business with the kind of ethical standards that would benefit the greater good. “They’ve got to grow, as start-ups. They can’t change that,” he says. “They can’t think about a shared, more cooperative, more collective business model with communities.”

Misfits Market, at least, seems intent on trying to do things the right way. Abhi Ramesh, the company’s founder and CEO, says that his company doesn’t work with Big Ag and instead targets local, organic producers for its purchasing. Misfits gives them access to a network they can use not just to sell more produce, but also to reach consumers who might not otherwise have access to their food. According to a 2009 report by the United States Department of Agriculture, more than 20 million Americans live in food deserts, which means they lack meaningful access to affordable, high-quality, fresh foods; the disparity disproportionately affects black and Latino populations. “The reasons those people don’t have access today is because it’s not cost-effective to service them,” Ramesh says. “So our big challenge from a business perspective is how we figure out a way to service them in an economically feasible way.”

Critics often dismiss sentiments like this as sly, do-gooder marketing. Most ugly-produce companies deliver only to select zip codes in major urban areas, which is yet another barrier to the historically deprived. “It’s assumed people who end up buying these boxes are wealthier people who want to feel good about saving the environment,” Ramesh acknowledges. But he says that the majority of his company’s customers don’t fit that stereotype, largely because it services every zip code in the states in which it operates. “They’re older, they’re on fixed incomes,” Ramesh says of Misfit’s customers. “They may not be on food stamps, but they end up falling into a socioeconomic bucket where they need access to affordable produce.” Ramesh says the company is also looking into ways to accept federal SNAP benefits, which help the lowest-income Americans afford fresh foods. (Misfits Market doesn’t publicly release sales data, including consumer demographics.)

Some food-justice advocates encourage ugly-produce start-ups to go even further. In December, Phat Beets Produce, an Oakland-based organization that provides community-supported affordable produce, released a petition with a set of demands for an ugly-produce competitor, Imperfect Produce. Phat Beets, which did not respond to a request for comment, wants the company and those like it to provide in-person payment and pickup options to serve people without access to banking services, coordinate free deliveries to food-justice organizations and food banks, and limit grower partnerships to those who comply with farm-worker labor standards. (Imperfect Produce notes that it does have some programs for underserved communities, including a free farmers market in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood.)

Meanwhile, other community food organizations have found it possible to work productively with ugly-food companies, despite worries that their success means diverting food away from people in need. Kait Bowdler, the director of sustainability for Philabundance, Philadelphia’s largest community food bank, says the two start-ups that service the area haven’t created any issues for her organization. “We have bigger problems we should be worried about,” Bowdler says. Philabundance hasn’t seen any drop-off in donations from growers since Misfits Market and Hungry Harvest became popular in the city. And normalizing the consumption of less-than-pristine produce can help alleviate the shame that some people feel when they need to get food from the bank, Bowdler says. “You can’t imagine how many different strategies we’ve had to talk about to make it clear to people that we’re recovering and rescuing food, not feeding people waste.”

Where Philabundance has seen recent donation shortages is from grocery stores. Bowdler credits that in part to stores’ expanding prepared-foods selections, which appeal to younger shoppers and allow retailers to reuse produce internally once it can no longer be sold in its original form. According to Gunder, the food-sustainability researcher, that dynamic is also connected to America’s food-waste problem, but it comes on the opposite end of the system. “Fruits and vegetables are the most wasted products in people’s homes,” she says. Based on her research, that’s where most waste happens overall.

Between kitchen-skill loss among younger Americans and the ever-dwindling opportunity to spend time preparing food, Millennials just don’t cook very much, even if they intend to. As a result, a lot of food goes uneaten for reasons that sales-based start-ups can’t touch. At least in the immediate future, that could present a bigger obstacle to feeding the poor than a disruption from ugly-produce boxes.

Moreover, just because ugly-produce start-ups aren’t doing all of the good doesn’t mean they can’t do some of it. Maybe both things are true: These businesses, if well run, can serve genuine needs for farmers and consumers that current agribusiness can’t. They’re also trying to retrofit a for-profit solution onto a supply chain that’s classist, racist, and opposed to the integrity of community-based food systems. The only real, long-term answer to those problems might be to rebuild the American food system as a whole. But maybe venture capital can be used to feed some people in the meantime.

Amanda Mull is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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This post originally appeared on The Atlantic and was published January 25, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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