Severn Joins ‘Ugly Produce' Hubs Trying to Fix Food Waste

A Silver Spring native is tackling the problem of food waste with his company, Imperfect Produce

One man's trash is another man's produce — that other man being University of Maryland alum Ben Simon.

About 20 billion pounds of food is wasted at American farms each year, according to hunger-relief organization Feeding America, but Simon says a lot of those fruits and veggies are just fine. They're just not as pretty as what goes to the grocery store.

The Silver Spring native has been making a living from too-big beets, slightly small squash, splotchy avocados, scraped up pears and curly carrots for the last three years.

His company, Imperfect Produce, doesn't just save "ugly" food from the trash. It turns the fruits and veggies into Instagramable products people can order in a trendy, customized box delivery service. That trendy marketing has resulted in more than 35 million pounds of produce recovered, according to the company.

Imperfect Produce's newest hub for odd-but-edible produce packing is in Severn. The company has five other pack centers serving 10 major cities — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, San Diego, Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Austin and San Antonio.

The Anne Arundel location opened last week, making service available as far as Baltimore and Tacoma Park. Soon, Simon says 35 employees will grow to 200 or 300 to serve "the entire DMV."

The team inspects the food to make sure it's only cosmetically unusual, not bruised or bad. Then it is repacked into boxes, weighed and crated the morning before it's delivered.

The company also takes surplus produce, which is perfectly pretty but too much for farms to transport.

"We're able to rescue a lot of product that would otherwise get tilled into the soil," said Nate Sumner, director of quality control.


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The opening of the company's newest location comes at a crucial time for food banks and other organizations trying to feed for the hungry. Imperfect Produce has partnered with the Maryland Food Bank and surplus produce goes directly to the organization, the company says. On Giving Tuesday, Imperfect Produce hosted a fundraiser for the food bank and matched every dollar donated up to $1,000 in produce. 

Last Tuesday, the second day of operations, Sumner stood with Simon and the company's team of directors donned in hair and beard nets, wearing winter coats in the refrigerated packing area.

Sumner picks up a pear with an S-shaped scar, sitting next to a carrot that looks like it's giving a thumbs up and equally sized brussel sprouts and avocados.

"This is no different than any other pear on the inside," he says. Sumner was a farmer for 10 years outside of Chicago. He's tired of seeing perfectly good food go to waste. "It took the farmer just as much work and just as much energy to grow this one. We don't value it differently."

The concept was initially a project from the University of Maryland's Food Recovery Network, which Simon started in 2011 to fight hunger with leftover campus meals.

In 2014, Simon started Hungry Harvest with another Maryland alum, Evan Lutz. In 2015, he split from Hungry Harvest to start Imperfect Produce in San Francisco.

"I had been working at the farmers market in D.C. since I was a teenager, and it was scary to see how much good food got thrown out," Simon said. "So we saved some and started selling 10-pound boxes for $10."

The pricing is a bit different now. Organic boxes range from about $15 for 7 pounds to $43 for 25 pounds, and conventional boxes range from about $11 for 7 pounds to $27 for 25 pounds. You're still paying about $1 to $1.75 a pound, before the $4.99 delivery fee. But that's the cost of ugly.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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