There are carrots the size of small zucchini, apples too small for most grocery stores and oddly shaped red bell peppers.

The produce is boxed up and delivered to customers who pay a fee to receive the fruits and vegetables usually on a weekly or twice-a-month basis.

But this is not the typical community-supported agriculture program that is found throughout Wisconsin and operated by small family farms with names like Blue Moon, Clover Bee, Harmony Valley and Snug Haven.

Instead, the vast majority of the excess and unwanted produce from San Francisco-based Imperfect Produce is sourced primarily from farms in California, shipped to a sorting and packing center in Chicago and trucked to a warehouse on Madison’s Southeast Side. That’s where a fleet of four new white cargo vans began delivering the items last week throughout the city and the surrounding Dane County suburbs.

“Welcome to the ugly food movement,” said Patrick Judge, regional director of operations in the Midwest for Imperfect Produce, as he showed off a box of produce that included mangoes and artichokes. “We’re not your typical produce company. We’re in business to combat food waste.”

Competing with CSAs

Dane County is flush with CSA farms, is home to the nationally known Dane County Farmers’ Market and several other farmers’ markets, while Willy Street Co-op, which prides itself on locally sourced and organic foods, has three stores and more than 35,000 members.

But the nationally scaled business model from Imperfect Produce, which also contracts with some farms in Wisconsin and Michigan, is getting a cool reception from the Madison area CSA movement, which sees Imperfect as a competitor that could also create confusion in the marketplace.

Carrie Sedlak, executive director of the FairShare Coalition, a Madison-based nonprofit that advocates for and connects CSA farmers with consumers, said she applauds Imperfect’s attempt at reducing food waste and said the company had reached out to her organization a few years ago seeking contacts for area farms. But she doesn’t want to see Imperfect’s efforts happen at the expense of local farmers.

“I’m hoping that consumers will understand what it means to support local farmers, still, through methods like CSAs and the farmers’ markets,” said Sedlak, who spent time as a farmhand at Crossroads Community Farm near Pine Bluff.

“It’s an interesting landscape. This is where this kind of green-washing effect takes place as people may not understand that it’s not all local but might assume that it is. I think folks might be confused and not be sure if they’re supporting local farmers, if they’re supporting the local economy and if they’re supporting sustainable production practices or not.”

FairShare has 43 farms in Wisconsin and one in Minnesota, but the organization’s annual report provides a peek at the impact CSAs can have on the local economy. In 2018, FairShare had 50 farms that combined to sell 13,224 CSA shares to 12,803 households. Sales were $4.9 million, according to the organization’s annual report.

The exact number of CSAs in Wisconsin is not known but is estimated to be around 200. Some have less than 20 shares while some offer their products to more than 1,000 members. In addition, Sedlak points out that several organizations in Dane County already work to reduce local food waste. They include Healthy Food For All, Community Action Coalition and many farms that donate their products to food pantries and community centers. On Saturdays, for example, the CAC gleans excess produce from vendors at the Dane County Farmers’ Market.

“There are a number of organizations and businesses working on (food waste) already, and in an ideal world it would be great to keep those efforts local,” Sedlak said.

Food waste is also on the radar of Hy-Vee. The Iowa-based retailer with three Dane County stores launched an app-based program in February designed to help its customers get reduced prices on food and help the stores eliminate inventory approaching their “best use” dates.

19th market

Imperfect Produce was founded in 2015 by Ben Simon, a former University of Maryland student who founded the Food Recovery Network and expanded the nonprofit program to 180 college campuses after noticing food going to waste in his school’s cafeteria. When Simon met Ben Chesler, the pair decided to purchase and sell produce that wasn’t the right size or misshaped and was being rejected by food wholesalers and grocery stores.

Imperfect opened in Milwaukee in June of last year and Madison is the company’s 19th market. It has plans to be in 30 markets by the end of 2020. The company also has sorting and packing facilities in five states, including in Chicago.

Customers can sign up for boxes that hold all vegetables, all fruit or a combination of the two. A small box offers up seven to nine pounds of produce for $11 to $13 per delivery with three other progressively larger boxes topping out at 23 to 25 pounds for $25 to $27. There are also options for organic boxes. Unlike most CSAs that offer community pickup points or on-the-farm pickups, Imperfect offers home delivery.

“Our customer should be everybody, but it’s a millennial world right now,” Judge said. “Most of our customers are that millennial age that just want everything delivered to them and we’re happy to provide that service.”

Paige Schultz, a company spokeswoman, said that the list of farms from which Imperfect sources its produce changes, but currently the company is working with Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative in Madison, which has a collection of 21 farms, and Specialty Potatoes & Produce, a Rosholt packinghouse that specializes in Fresh Organic Potatoes. Schultz said 78% of Imperfect’s produce is sourced from family farms or cooperatives, 13% is wholesale, 6% comes from grower representatives and 3% comes from corporate farmers.

Other viewpoints

Andy Watson owns Sprouting Acres, a 5-acre CSA farm between Cambridge and Stoughton. Founded in 2003, the operation grows a wide range of vegetables, has drop-off locations throughout Dane County and sells at three farmers’ markets. Watson frequently sells blemished tomatoes that can be used for sauce and other vegetables that some choose to use in smoothies. He also just built a wood-fired oven that cooks up pizza on the first and third Sunday evening of each month. The 12-inch pizzas are ideal for parts of vegetables that may not be aesthetically pleasing in one of his CSA boxes, although his vegetables can vary in size and may not match those sold in a grocery store.

“We’re not grading to a certain size for a certain market,” Watson said. “We’re more worried about freshness.”

Laurel Burelson, who in 2016 opened the Ugly Apple Cafe food cart in Madison, also does catering and makes jellies, jams and fruit leather. The vast majority of the produce she uses are overstocks, vary in size and shape or have portions that are split or bruised and are all sourced locally. In addition, she points to canned fruits and frozen vegetables sold in mainstream grocery stores as examples of the food industry already using imperfect produce.

A national company like Imperfect Produce has a large carbon footprint and its business model could hurt local farmers, she said.

“There’s plenty of Wisconsin farmers who have a pretty tough gig and they’re so important,” Burelson said. “It seems like (Imperfect is) selling a thing to make people feel good about what they’re buying. If people really want to do good and minimize food waste, buy from your local farmers.”

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