Building A Better Food System For Everyone, With Everyone By Ben Simon, Co-Founder & CEO
I co-founded Imperfect to fight food waste and build a better food system for everyone. This second part of our mission statement is critical, and is worth unpacking and exploring. Part of that is making sure we’re truly helping the communities we’re in because it’s those communities who are, on large and small scales, nourishing change from the ground up. We’re excited to share that we just met with several food justice leaders in the Bay Area -- Phat Beets, Food First, Planting Justice -- to discuss ways Imperfect can help make a bigger impact on their efforts, and look forward to collaborating with them in the coming months.
They had several requests, many of which were already in the works on our end. I wanted to share their requests and our next steps with you, our community, so as to open up a discussion about what we’re focused on improving in the coming year.
1. Use your profits and massive infrastructure to provide free delivery to community based organizations, food pantries, and food banks that receive the leftover donations from your business on a weekly basis.
As mentioned in our community meeting today, we’re excited to say this is already underway. While many of our nonprofit partners are able to pick up donations at our warehouses, we recognize that some can’t, often because of limited transportation resources. Both Ben Chesler and I have backgrounds in organizing student volunteers to use their own cars to recover food, so we know the struggle is real and that transportation is often the missing link in a successful food recovery. In San Francisco, we’re piloting our first donation-delivery program this week, which we plan on scaling to our other markets. This will allow us to donate even more produce to our nonprofit and food bank partners, helping to increase the 1.5 million pounds of produce donated so far.
2. Create a community fund that re-grants 1% of your profits per city to support small rural farmers, urban farmers, and community based food organizations to grow their own infrastructure to provide healthy food to their communities.
Imperfect exists to do two things: eliminate food waste and build a better food system for everyone. While we’re proud of the impact we’ve made, we also know that we can’t do this alone. That’s why we recently announced to our customers that in 2019, we’re creating a foundation to support other organizations who are advancing our mission of eliminating food waste and building a better food system for everyone--this includes smaller farmers, farmers of color, community food organizations, and nonprofits. This foundation will be co-lead by Imperfect’s Community Benefit Coordinator, Marlana Malerich, alongside a community panel of food justice and recovery activists from across the country. We plan to have grant applications open by the end of 2019.
Having gotten our start as social entrepreneurs founding the Food Recovery Network in 2011, we know firsthand just how much support, nurturing, and backing these types of organizations need. As we become more of a player in the food industry, we see a huge opportunity to reinvest these same resources back into our community.
3. Fulfill your promise on your website to provide full sourcing transparency regarding your value chain, including the brokers you use, the carbon footprint associated with shipping surpluses and grade B produce thousands of miles, and the price you are paying per pound to the agribusiness from which you source.
We’ll always be transparent about the main aspects of our supply chain: where the produce comes from and the types of farms we buy from. When you customize your box, you can see the town that every piece of produce is grown in. In terms of the types of farms we support, 78% of our produce is sourced from family farms or cooperatives, 13% is wholesale (typically what we use to supplement orders during our first few weeks in a new city), 6% is from grower representatives, and 3% comes from corporate farms.
There are two primary reasons we can’t disclose information on the most granular level, like how much we pay for every item every week, or listing out every grower on our website. First and foremost, this to protect our farmers and distributors, many of whom request that we keep their names private, and secondly, it’s to protect our business.
Many of our farmers want to be known for their perfect produce in order to maintain their name recognition and their #1 grade prices, not their naturally-occurring ugly, imperfect, or surplus produce (which is what we buy). If we were to disclose their names, it could damage their #1 product sales and undermine their profits. Similarly, we won’t disclose exactly what we pay farmers per pound for each commodity because they’d be at risk of their other buyers (like big grocery stores) wanting lower prices as well--even on their perfect items. We can, however, tell you that we typically pay farmers and distributors around 50% of what they would receive for their #1 grade produce. This is multiple times what they would normally get for their ugly or surplus produce, as it most commonly would go to landfill, animal feed, be tilled back into the field, or in some rare cases, go to juicers.
Moreover, we’ve worked tirelessly over the years to identify and build relationships with farms across the country, in addition to a complex pricing model, and these components are the closest thing we have to a “secret recipe.” If we gave this away, we’d be putting our business–and all of its social good initiatives–at risk.
Keeping a grower’s name and the price we paid in confidence is standard in the produce world--organic or conventional, ugly or #1 grade--and we stand by this decision. Internally, it’s made us rethink how we use the word “transparent” so as not to unintentionally mislead or over-promise when it comes to our sourcing.
Regarding our carbon footprint mapping, this sounds like an interesting and worthwhile project to take on. Right now we’re working under the understanding that reducing food waste nationally has a far bigger impact on climate change than these transportation costs, but we’d love to start exploring this further next year.
4. Create a hiring protocol that places a minimum of 10% historically marginalized people from the local community in leadership positions, not just warehouse jobs.
When it comes to diversity, companies can always do more and better to make sure everyone is represented at all levels of the business, and so can Imperfect. While we’re proud that as of December 2018, over 40% of team members manager-level or above are people of color, we’re committed to learning, to growing, and to creating new ways for diversity and representation to be at the center of who we are. We liked the idea of formalizing this into a hiring protocol to make sure that our company stays diverse as we grow, and we’ll be creating that soon. We appreciate the suggestion.
5. Commit to creating packaging for your produce that reduces your carbon footprint i.e create a reusable/returnable box program that reflects the values of waste reduction you espouse.
We’re launching a pilot program next year that takes back our customers’ boxes and donates them to Oregon Food Bank, which uses thousands of boxes each month to distribute dry food items to their clients. We’ve learned that food banks have a hard time acquiring donated boxes and sometimes have to buy these boxes for up to 25 cents each. We’re really excited about this pilot and hope to scale it across all markets, simultaneously supporting our food bank partners and repurposing our boxes.
Being more sustainable is always top of mind for us, and we’re constantly trying to be better. Part of this is finding a sustainable solution to our boxes, which is why we work with Stop Waste, a local Bay Area organization that’s been offering us advice and best practices around the latest in reusable packaging. Unfortunately they’ve confirmed there's really nothing out there that would be food-safe for us to reuse as of now, but we're happy to hear any and all suggestions.
6. Create a system that allows customers to pay in person or at a point of delivery with SNAP benefits.
Because online retailers like us aren’t legally permitted to accept SNAP, and because an in-person purchase option isn’t logistically feasible (less than half of our deliveries are attended by the customer), we created our own Reduced Cost Box program to ensure that no one is priced out of good food. Through this program, anyone eligible for SNAP can get fresh produce for about 50% less than grocery store prices. We have over 8,500 individuals and families enrolled, which is equivalent to donating roughly $150,000 per month in produce donations, and we’re excited for it to grow to over $3M in 2019. In the words of some of our Reduced Cost Box recipients:
“After my youngest son was born I was forced to quit my job because childcare for two infants was too costly and ended up being a wash pay wise. I am blessed to be home with them but going from a two paycheck income has been challenging. We have struggled to make ends meet on occasion and this program is helping to keep fresh produce a daily part of my family's life.” --Patricia
“The reduced cost produce box from Imperfect has really changed my life and allowed me to focus on my work and my home, without worrying about where our next healthy meal is going to come from. It is difficult enough to survive in a high cost of living area like the Bay Area, without the added stress of trying to buy healthy, nourishing food on a budget. Thanks for all you do.” --Taylor
We’re hopeful that the USDA will soon allow online retailers like us to finally accept SNAP, as this is a conversation we’ve been part of and something we’ve been pushing for since 2013.
7. Commit to not sourcing produce from suppliers that violate the rights of farm workers or are under the boycott by the coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), United Farm Workers, or other unions such as Driscoll products regardless if they are surplus.
We would be happy to commit to not working with growers who are under boycott. Let’s plan to talk more next time we meet.
We are grateful to Planting Justice, Phat Beets, and Food First for taking time out of their busy days to meet with us for a thoughtful exchange about our work in the community. Special thank you to Eric Holtz-Giménez for being such a gracious host. We’d love to open this up to our community and keep the conversation going in our comments section. If you have any feedback or requests for Imperfect, please share them below. We’re always looking for opportunities to hear from our community and embrace new ideas that will help us improve Imperfect as a force for change in our food system. My vision is for Imperfect to be the most people-driven company on the planet. We’re already leading the way on good jobs, our Reduced Cost Box program, and our food donations--over 1.5 millions lbs donated in our first year. And we’re committed to keep learning and evolving based on input from you and from organizations like those we met with today.