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Imperfect produce service aims to curb food waste, bring fresh veggies to your door

COURTESY: IMPERFECT PRODUCE - Many farmers let blemished fruits and vegetables go to waste. Imperfect Produce hopes to reduce that, cutting carbon emissions as a result. At first glance, the box of carrots, eggplant, pears, plums and other produce looks like anything you'd find at the farmers market.

On closer inspection, the carrots might be a little curvy, the eggplant slightly scarred, the pears a little spotted, the plums a little bruised.

These blemishes — which have no impact on nutrition or taste — are the reason you might never see this "ugly" produce in most grocery stores.

Instead, most of it is wasted — billions of pounds go unharvested, sent to landfills or composted for animal feed. One in five fruits and vegetables are wasted at the farm level. Overall, an estimated 40 percent of food in the United States goes to waste.

Portland-area residents can now help stem the tide of food waste through Imperfect, a California-based produce delivery service that launched here in mid-August.

"By eating Imperfect fruits and veggies, you're helping to change the food system, improve access to healthy food and protect the environment from the greenhouse gases emitted by uneaten, decomposing food in landfills," says Evan Pence, Imperfect's general manager in Portland.

"The people of Portland just share Imperfect's values," says Ben Simon, the company's founder and chief executive officer. "People here really get sustainability. … There's also that ethos of embracing weirdness, which we're all about, too."

After tackling the problem on campus while a student at the University of Maryland, Simon and his partners co-founded Imperfect in the Bay Area in August 2015.

They expanded to Los Angeles this January. After this summer's Portland startup, they plan to launch in Seattle this fall.

The expansion has gone quicker than planned, Simon says, because fans have embraced the concept — especially on social media, where Simon says he gets at least one request to launch in a different U.S. city each day.

The Portland operation employs 20 people, who work out of their Clackamas warehouse, sourcing produce from farms across the Pacific Northwest and driving vans filled with products to customers throughout the metro area.

COURTESY: IMPERFECT PRODUCE - Imperfect Produce is now delivering boxes of blemished, scarred or otherwise ugly produce to home customers in the Portland area. Deliveries to customers in Troutdale, Hillsboro, Oregon City and Vancouver, Washington, will be phased in during coming weeks. More than 1,500 local customers placed orders in the first week.

The Clackamas warehouse also will be the base for Imperfect's Seattle operations, sending daily truckloads north this fall.

The company is conscious of its carbon footprint, Simon says. He's confident that this process eliminates one or two steps in the supply chain — produce typically goes from the farm to a private distributor and then to a grocery store distribution center.

At Imperfect, the produce heads from farm to warehouse to your home, which is why it's offered at 30 percent of the grocery store cost, Simon says.

Since launching in Portland, Imperfect has established relationships with five to 10 farmers in Oregon and Washington, to supply pears, apples, potatoes and a few other products. Imperfect doesn't mention those farmers by name, because most farms have their own premium brand, which they don't want to tarnish.

In the meantime, Imperfect plans to continue expanding, while also donating hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce they collect to local food banks.

"Our company has kept over 5 million pounds of produce from going to waste at a time when one in eight families are struggling to put food on the table," Pence says. " We want to eliminate the idea of the 'food desert' with more accessibility and lower prices for families looking for healthy options."

@jenmomanderson

Check it out:

Fruit and veggie boxes of various sizes are available for as low as $11 per week for a 7-9 pound box. An organics-only box also is offered; an extra-large 25-pound box is $43 per week. Deliveries can be adjusted for every other week, stopped or held during vacations. For more: imperfectproduce.com

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