The imperfect food movement continues to rise in popularity as companies, like Imperfect Produce in Silicon Valley, capitalize on a growing trend to fight food waste around the country. Imperfect Produce and similar companies offer boxes of ugly and misshapen produce to customers, saving a lot of food that would otherwise be discarded. While the movement is cutting down on food waste, small farmers are worried that it might have a negative affect on their livelihoods.
Origins of the imperfect food movement
Startups like Imperfect Produce are not the first to sell discarded produce at a discount. Farmers around the country have been doing it for years with the support of local communities. Many farmers engage in community supported agriculture (CSA), selling boxes of imperfect produce on a subscription basis and providing fresh food that is locally sourced.
Although trends like the imperfect food movement are on the rise, small farmers have seen a decline in their sales as larger companies and grocery stores branch out into the organic marketplace. It is estimated that small farms throughout the country have seen a 20 percent dip year over year in CSA sales ever since the imperfect food movement took off in 2014.
An imperfect food movement on the rise
Selling ugly and misshapen produce has really taken off over the past three years, and the movement is still going strong. Imperfect Produce sells produce in a growing number of cities across America. This past summer, Imperfect Produce started another round of financing that generated upward of $30 million, a clear sign that investors are interested in the growing movement.
But as companies like Imperfect Produce benefit from the imperfect food movement, small farmers are struggling to keep up. The decline in sales has even forced some smaller farmers to shut down and seek work elsewhere.
How are small farmers affected?
The main problem with the imperfect food movement, at least as it relates to small farms, is that the market has become too large for these farmers to compete. Imperfect Produce is doing its best to help small farms by sourcing produce from farms across the Midwest — the company currently works with 25 small farms throughout the area — but the demand is higher than what these farmers can meet.
To help fill the gaps, Imperfect Produce has turned to larger farms, which supply all of the demand and do so at a cheaper price. In fact, the majority of the produce the company sells actually comes from Mexico and California, especially when winter hits the Midwest. For all of the farmers who are not associated with the company, competing with them at that scale is nearly impossible.
The ugly side of the imperfect food movement
Small farmers are not the only ones hurt by the imperfect food movement. With most of the produce coming from California and Mexico, customers outside of these regions aren’t always getting local or seasonal foods — instead, more emissions are emitted as these companies try to get enough food to customers. Critics also point out that companies like Imperfect Produce are making money from food that would normally be donated to non-profit organizations, like local food banks.
This in turn hurts local communities and low-income families who have used these resources for decades. That said, Imperfect Produce has made an effort to help out food banks in cities where it operates. In Chicago, for example, the company has gifted more than 130,000 pounds of produce to the city’s food bank, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which gives this food to homeless shelters and food outlets.
Benefits of the imperfect food movement
The impact on small farms aside, the imperfect food movement is cutting down on overall food waste, which is a big issue in this country. As the movement rises in popularity, more and more produce will be rescued from the trash heap, a benefit that should not be overlooked.
The imperfect food movement also teaches consumers — and farmers — that produce can look imperfect but still taste amazing and have nutritional value. It can also open the door for people to look into other programs, like CSA, that offer imperfect produce at a discount.
Should you support the imperfect food movement or small farmers?
The imperfect food movement has created a difficult problem for small farmers throughout the country, an issue that will likely worsen in the coming years. For consumers, picking between supporting local farmers or the imperfect food movement is a tough decision. On one hand, buying imperfect produce helps cut down on food waste. On the other hand, buying that produce from larger companies hurts small farmers who cannot compete with the growing demand.
As the movement continues to grow, we can only hope that companies like Imperfect Produce will partner with more small farms. After all, helping small farms not only keeps their doors open, but it also boosts local economies and provides fresh food with a smaller environmental impact.