As awareness has grown of the reprehensible amount of food we throw away in the western world (an estimated 40 percent), efforts to combat food waste have emerged from a variety of places along the food value chain, particularly at the retail level, and primarily in Europe: Last year, French supermarket chain Intermarché led the pack with its ingenious “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign, which aimed to prove to picky shoppers that less than perfect produce is still just as delicious and nutritious (and slightly less expensive). And in the last six months alone, UK retailer Asda has followed suit with its “Wonky Veg” campaign; France has voted to forbid major supermarkets from destroying unsold food, encouraging them to donate to charities or to farms for animal feed; and UK grocery giant Tesco announced a similar initiative earlier this month, partnering with UK food redistribution charity FareShare and Irish social enterprise FoodCloud to redistribute surplus food from its stores to local people in need.
Now it seems the fervor around reducing grocery store food waste has finally made it Stateside: West Coast supermarket chain Raley’s has partnered with Oakland, Calif., startup Imperfect to pilot an initiative called “Real Good,” aimed at — you guessed it — espousing the virtues of less-than-pretty produce.
Beginning next month, Raley’s will be selling aesthetically imperfect produce at a lower price point than their “perfect” counterparts, at 10 Northern California locations.
“Raley’s is proud to take a meaningful step forward to help reduce food waste in our country," Meg Burritt, Director of Wellness & Sustainability, said in a statement. “Our ‘Real Good’ produce will educate our customers about the food system, offer our growers a new pathway to market their produce, and provide greater access to produce that is aesthetically imperfect, but just as flavorful and nutritious.”
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“Both our company and the pilot with Raley's were definitely inspired by what the European supermarkets have been doing,” Imperfect COO Ben Chesler told Sustainable Brands in an email. “But with Raley's specifically, one of our co-founders, Ron Clark, had been having sporadic talks with Raley's even before Imperfect was born. And after we launched the company, we thought it would be a great fit with what we do and so we restarted the conversation. Pretty quickly, Raley's got on board and we planned the pilot.”
Chesler says the first pilot will center around peppers, plums and pears. Depending on the success of the pilot, plans include expanding the number of stores, and the number of products, according to what’s in season.
Aside from its partnership with Raley’s, Imperfect is launching in the Bay Area this summer with an “Imperfect Produce” CSA model: The company sources funny-looking produce from California farmers at discounted prices, then passes those savings on to consumers in the form of 10- to 15-pound weekly boxes of quality produce, delivered to their door for 30 percent below retail prices.
Meanwhile, according to Civil Eats, a handful of domestic distillers are also seeing the beauty in ugly fruit — as a key ingredient in delicious, artisan spirits. One example, Colorado-based Peach Street Distillers, used 130,000 pounds of over-ripe peaches and 96,000 pounds of pears to produce more than 1,000 cases of fruit-based spirits in 2014.
“When we started the distillery [in 2005] we had no idea there was such an abundance of unwanted fruit,” Moose Koons, a partner in Peach Street Distillers, told Civil Eats. “We saw an opportunity to use fruit that would otherwise go to waste and do something positive with it. Farmers don’t like the waste either, but they had no idea what to do with the fruit that the supermarkets wouldn’t take.”
Rachel Inman, operations manager at Clear Creek Distillery, noted that this has long been a solution to fruit waste. “Farmers have a long history of distilling fruits like pears and apples because they needed to use it before it went bad.”
To produce 10,000 cases of spirits annually, such as their pear eaux de vie and apple brandy, Clear Creek partnered with a packing house in the Hood River Valley to buy fruit that is too small, ripe or scarred to be sold in supermarkets. Inman says Clear Creek buys upwards of 600,000 pounds of pears a year, using up to 30 pounds of fruit for each bottle.
“It goes from a pear worth two cents to a bottle of spirits that retails for $80,” Inman says. “It’s our way of doing something special with something ordinary.”