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Reducing the Industry Waste-Line: 5 Questions with Imperfect Foods

Author: Apeel Team

Good Bites is our series of virtual conversations with the food industry’s most influential names. These chats aim to get insights and ideas around how we can all better address food waste, climate change, and important agricultural considerations that help us create a more abundant future. 

We recently had the pleasure of chatting with food industry leader Maddy Rotman, Head of Sustainability at Imperfect Foods, alongside Hannah Koski, Head of Sustainability & Social Impact at Blue Apron.

We had a fascinating conversation on their work to reduce the food industry’s waste line, and wanted to share five key points we covered in our discussion with Maddy in our blog.  

You can watch the whole Good Bites conversation with Maddy and Hannah on our website or at the bottom of this blog post.

  1. In the Imperfect Foods sourcing model, how do you determine what makes an ‘imperfect’ piece of produce?

MADDY: This is an ever-changing story. When we started, we just focused on produce. Now we’re in the grocery space as well. This means we are focused on anything that is nutritious and delicious – food that may have scars, food that is oversized or undersized, food that is surplus because the market changes for whatever reason. Over the summer, because of CoVid-19, we’ve seen the supply chain change extremely. For example, for food that usually goes to cafeterias or restaurants, we’re now able to partner with growers and suppliers and make sure that food goes somewhere it can be used. Food waste always looks different, so we’re here to find a home for anything that doesn’t meet the standard market needs at the moment. 

  1. Imperfect Foods really seems like it was born to fight food waste. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of efforts to bring the conversation around your company’s mission? How are you making sure consumers understand it in a way that they can then go and share it? 

MADDY: We started five years ago with the mission of working with growers and farmers to understand the challenges of not having a marketplace for food that was either going to get tilled under, composted or even put in a landfill. We know the food in a landfill produces 20% to 25% more greenhouse emissions. So that’s really our core and where we began– to fight food waste. As we've grown, we’ve had the opportunity to grow into new categories. As we’ve expanded, we’ve been able to look around the market to find more solutions.  All of these different opportunities where food waste is occurring, we can come in and work with producers and growers and ask, “Where is your excess? Where can we find a solution for you?” and then share these stories with customers. People realize they’re okay with all shapes and sizes, as long as it tastes good. So we’re really creating a space for customers to come and find that, to know we’ve done the hard work in reducing the food waste, and bringing the delicious food to them.

  1. Are there barriers to being able to bring this food to market? Are there things you are working on as a company to impact consumer barriers?

MADDY: There are always barriers. We’re working to overcome them independently and collectively. We’re able to be flexible, to work with the supply chain and trucking logistics. That’s where we’re really great: being able to bring the product in from producers. Proper inventory management, really quick turnover, keeping products fresh: These are all so important to us. There are places we look to support and fit into ecosystems. We use the EPA hierarchy and have a network in each of our facilities with different non-profits and different food banks to ensure we can create more food security beyond our customer base.  We’re figuring out that ecosystem: finding great food, rescuing great food, and making it really easy for customers to access that, and then figuring out some of those other barriers we can overcome. Some of that is partnering with the right folks who are doing really good work in our communities, those that need food access and are hard to reach. That is really important to us. 

  1. We know that 20 billion pounds of fresh produce goes to waste each year. Can you explain how, in the sourcing process, you use this three-way sourcing model? 

MADDY: We have an amazing woman on our team who sources produce for us. She is the one who really works with our producers and says, “How can we fit into your system, and what are your needs?” That way, we are really taking food out of the system that would have otherwise gone to waste, and we’re working with food banks who are also rescuing food from other growers and producers. We’re asking them, “Where is your waste, what does it look like, and how can we create a model that works for you?” It’s really key to ensuring we’re all going after the same problem and working on it in a complementary way. For example, we package all of the misshapen pasta from producers since they can’t sell those and repackage it as our Imperfect Pasta

  1. There are some big barriers in the way of getting fresh food to unserved populations: access to attaining the food, the resources that are actually used to prepare that food, as well as food education, etc. What opportunity do you think brands have to take action in making change around these issues?

MADDY: This is super close to my heart. I think every brand has an opportunity to do something. For us, we look at this a few different ways. Regionally we work with different food banks and food access partners who are able to distribute foods and donate to them so we can support them in what they already do really well. We also are offering a reduced cost box program, a 33% off the box to anyone that is SNAP eligible. 

To this point, there’s access to food and then there’s also knowing what to do with it. We have a blog called ‘The Whole Carrot’ and different newsletters. We share everything from recipes to different food waste tactics so that you are able to use every single thing that we have. We always knew that this was a big problem that we wanted to address as we grow. And we’re doing just that.

To watch the whole Good Bites conversation with Maddy and Imperfect Foods, check out this video: