Rare is the item I can get shipped to my door. Zero waste means missing out on much of the time-saving hedonism that is, apparently, the new millenium. How many Blue Apron podcast ads have I fast-forwarded through at this point? How many meal service delivery kits have I emailed to ask them to please stop sending me flyers? How many things have I not impulse-purchased since cancelling my Amazon Prime subscription? A whole lot, that's how many.
As I wrote about last month, though, when there are companies where their shipment and subscription model might possibly have some other sustainability benefits, I'm not opposed to giving them a try. And so for the last few months, I've purchased a fortnightly box of imperfect produce from, well, Imperfect Produce. (This is a good place to say: This post isn't sponsored, and I've paid for all of my Imperfect boxes myself).
It's well-known that most conventional grocery stores only accept the very "best" produce, meaning the produce that conforms to their detailed descriptors of what, say, a perfect lemon should look like. This has little to do with taste and lots to do with appearances, meaning that fruits and vegetables that don't meet this very narrow set of standards often get wasted - literally left in the fields or thrown into a landfill. These might be foods that are a shade too small or too large, have a funky pattern or slightly strange growth, are an unusual color, have a scar, or are simple produced in excess such that they're left over after grocery stores get their orders in.
Imperfect Produce takes these foods that grocery stores won't accept and sells them instead of letting them go, quite literally, to waste. They work with farmers to buy up the veggies that are cosmetically slightly imperfect, and they let folks buy boxes of them weekly or biweekly. You can choose what comes in your box - I like a mix of organic fruits and veggies, heavy on the leafy greens - and items are often cheaper than they might be at the grocery store.
From late spring through fall, I try to shop at a nearby farmers' market as much as possible. The produce I find there comes from local growers and might be a little wonky - too large, too small, and otherwise cosmetically deformed - but it looks and feels alive and fresh in a way that its grocery store brethren lacks. But of course, in the winter the selection available at the farmers' markets dies down, and this year I've been filling in the gap with a biweekly shipment from Imperfect.
In addition to the major reason I've chosen to purchase from Imperfect (feeling like I'm having a tiny impact on the amount of food that's wasted in the United States just because it's ever-so-slightly flawed), not having to trudge through snow or brave a chilly night to grab groceries is a boon, as well.
In case you're interested in giving them a try, here's what I've liked - and disliked - about my experience so far:
-Food waste due to cosmetic imperfections is a travesty, and in a season when buying locally from the farmers' market isn't a possibility for me, knowing that even if my produce is shipped from all over the country, at least it's largely rescued food, is a good feeling.
-Relatedly: there are some foods I'm probably always going to purchase even if they're not grown locally. Oranges in the winter, and lemons, limes, and avocados all year-round are some good examples. You might be willing to go without these in the name of local food: I, at this moment at least, am not. So if I have to purchase food from California (guilt guilt guilt), I'm happy that there's at least some small sustainability component to it.
-The aforementioned not having to go to the grocery as often in the cold (win).
-I can customize my box each time, so that I only get food I'll actually eat. I tend to stock up on foods that will last for awhile (squashes, onions, garlic) so that I always have those on hand even if the rest of the contents of my refrigerator have dwindled. (You can also choose only organic produce, only conventional, or a mix of both).
-In most cases, they tell you on their website why the food you're buying is considered "imperfect." Perhaps the farm had a surplus, maybe the lemons are too small, maybe the squash has been set aside due to scarring. It's been a fascinating experience to learn the different reasons food is cast aside before making it to shelves, and it makes me even more glad to be doing something about it.
-Much of the produce arrives gloriously unpackaged inside the cardboard box. Shown below is last week's box, with everything laid out in exactly the packaging it came in. You'll notice that the greens are unpackaged, as are avocados, squash, pears, garlic, lemons, and parsley.
Not to love:
-Shipments come in cardboard boxes, and they can't take the boxes back for reuse due to health code restrictions. This means you'll be left with a cardboard box after each delivery. Ideally it can be reused (I've used mine for dropping off thrift store donations; someone I know finds it perfect for corralling her recycling each week), but otherwise it gets recycled. I've chosen to get a box every other week rather than every week - and to purchase a greater volume in said box - to cut down on the cardboard waste. You could go a step further and just get a monthly box too, full of the less-perishable staples you might want to keep around for longer.
-There is some plastic trash involved. Though many produce arrives loose, some of it is, in my experience, plastic-packaged. There are some instances in which this doesn't bother me: for example, greens come tied using a twist tie that isn't recyclable. Since this is the same twist tie I'd get if I purchased greens at the grocery, I'm happy to let it slide. More frustratingly, a few items in each shipment seem to come packaged in plastic bags, and there's no way to tell in advance which items those will be, making the plastic bags hard to avoid. I've had carrots bundled loose with rubber bands (perfect!) and single onions wrapped in a plastic bag (yikes). This week's shipment had ginger in a plastic bag, and same with clementines. I think they use the plastic bags to help portion items sold by the pound, but the first shipment I ever received used paper bags to accomplish the same goal. I've reached out to Imperfect about their plastic, and I haven't been satisfied with their response. For now, I keep the bags tucked away to recycle at a store near me.
-You have to choose what's in your next shipment about five days in advance of receiving it, and it can be tough to know what you're going to need in five days. (Maybe for the more organized this isn't an issue).
Here's what the trash from my most recent shipment looks like (though the plastic bags and paper card will be recycled):
The funny thing about it? I actually think a lot of the produce from my box is way more perfect than what I usually get; since it was grown to be sold at grocery stores, it often seems shiny and regular in ways that my summertime farmers' market veggies aren't. My imperfect produce is typically, actually, pretty perfect.
Imperfect Produce currently services the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Portland (Oregon), Seattle and Tacoma, and the Chicago area. If you live in their service area and would like to give them a try, here's a link you can use for $10 off your first order with them.
Have you tried their service? What have you liked, disliked? I'd love to hear.