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The debates around new produce box companies and CSAs

Imperfect Produce (IP) was founded in 2015. Within two years, by the end of 2017, the company was able to expand to four additional cities besides San Francisco: Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle and Chicago.

IP is a produce box subscription service that claims to reduce food waste by buying produce from farms that do not make it into the supermarket which would otherwise go to waste. It is framed as environmental activism, saving ‘ugly’ foods from the compost bin. 

However, that might not be the reality.

Last issue, I wrote an article about produce boxes and named a few companies that deliver in the area, one of them being IP. A reader sent me an article in response that detailed some of the issues with IP, although some issues could be applicable to the ‘produce box’ industry in general.

In the staff editorial written by Oakland-based Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Phat Beets Produce (PBP), published by the New Food Economy, PBP outlines what seems to be their three main problems with Imperfect Produce: their marketing, their sourcing, and their community involvement.

PBP found the way that IP markets their company — ‘saving’ completely edible food destined to go to compost or waste purely because of market standards — ludicrous.

In the ‘About’ section on IP’s website, they market to consumers who want to be conscious, saying “by eating ‘ugly,’ you’re helping build a more sustainable and effective food system. You’re helping fight food waste. You’re ensuring farmers are rewarded for their full harvest with less wasted land, fossil fuels, and water. You’re improving access to healthy food. You’re creating fulfilling careers for employees. With every bite into a misshapen apple or crooked carrot, you’re helping shape our world for the better.”

On their blog, IP answers their rhetorical question of why they fight food waste with “because it’s the right thing to do.” This ties into the idea that simply because they are trying to fight food waste that it is the right thing to do, but not digging into how being an ethical consumer is not just about the end product but the whole chain of supply. 

This branding that IP is an ethical company looking out for the environment and the farmers they source from while helping to reduce food waste is one of the main issues PBP outlines in their staff ed.

“The reality is that this produce would have otherwise gone to food banks, to be redistributed for free. As social safety nets continue to get slashed and incomes stagnate, more and more people are turning to these food banks to access this imperfect produce,” the editorial writes. “Imperfect Produce (the startup) is cutting into this same surplus, rebranding it, boxing it up in single use cardboard boxes and making a profit off of the desires of “conscious” consumers who want to reduce food waste.”

In addition, the way that IP sources is not easily tracked. On their ‘Our Sourcing’ page, they write, “while the list of farms that we source from changes every day, our mission stays the same: to source only the highest quality produce that has a positive impact on your plate as well as the planet!”

If the list of farms they have changes from day to day, then how does IP build relationships with those people? What kinds of farms are they sourcing from? Who are they really helping here?

IP says that they try to source locally around each city they cater to, but their bigger priority is to “always ‘follow the waste.’ This means that we do source from out of state — and out of the country — when necessary and appropriate (we list where each item was grown, so you’ll always know!)”

However, taken in conjunction with PBP’s staff editorial, this seems to be counterproductive. If the food would otherwise have gone to food banks and IP “follows the waste” (meaning they do not prioritize locality) then it begs the question, “is IP really an ethical company? Wouldn’t the food have been donated to local food banks instead of using up resources to ship or transport the produce to consumers?”

On IP’s FAQ page, they answer this question, saying that they do not pull from produce going to food banks.

“We are sourcing produce that would otherwise get left in the field or perhaps sold to become processed food or given away as animal feed,” according to the website. IP also says they donate thousands of pounds of surplus produce regularly to their 19 food bank partners, and any produce not to their standard is either donated to animal feed or composted.

Lastly, PBP took issue to how IP is “gentrifying” the ethical food movement that is (and should be, they argue) rooted in working with small and local farmers, intimate community food initiatives, and contributing to social justice movements around food access, rather like what PBP’s mission is.

“While Imperfect Produce has always been a friendly bunch willing to donate its surplus, it sells a market solution disguised as activism, undermining alternative economies and social justice initiatives like those implemented by Phat Beets,” the staff editorial wrote. “Unlike CSAs, it isn’t rooted in a community economy, but in the free market, investors, and higher income consumers. Small farmers and poor communities lose out in the process.”

However, the article does disclose that Phat Beets has a somewhat personal stake in how Imperfect Produce is received, honestly quantifying their feelings.

“Three years later and with a 30 percent drop in customers at our Beet Box CSA, we realized that we were being out-competed by a startup with a glitzy marketing campaign and venture-capital funding,” the staff editorial writes. “This corporate-supported agriculture was avidly commodifying agribusiness’ food ‘waste’ and had little to do with supporting the community.”

It sounds as though the other side of the CSA industry or market is becoming increasingly convoluted, the New York Times reported, because the term is not regulated in most states and the original intention and use of the word has now become entangled with the kind of ruthless capitalism that it was never supposed to be.

“As the ‘farm share’ concept has spread, the CSA has become just another part of the sprawling, messy modern system of knowing where your food comes from and choosing what you want to eat,” the NYT article said.

It seems the issue has complicated and unclear results, and the answer to “How can I be a conscious and ethical consumer?” is never as easy as it may seem.