You can order an 'ugly' produce subscription service—but should you?
I cooked with ugly produce for two months—here’s what happened
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Each year, an estimated 30 to 40 percent of food goes to waste, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Although the vast majority of it comes from spoilage at restaurants and at home, around 11 to 16 percent can be attributed to farmers who simply can’t find buyers for their produce. What do they do? They send it to a landfill: 20 percent of farm products get thrown out each year, often because their appearance doesn’t live up to consumers’ expectations.
When I was little, my parents prioritized fresh ingredients over everything. My father would visit the nearby farmer’s market before he went to work with then-five-year-old me in tow. At the market, he’d chat with the growers to learn about what they had to offer. This routine had such a profound impact on me in that I have adopted the same habit of spending extra time in the produce section, looking for the best seasonal fruits and vegetables.
However, my father didn’t always chase the pristine potato or spotless bunch of leafy greens. The opposite: He complained about how perfect the fruits and vegetables looked, worrying that the consumer obsession with picture-worthy produce had caused the excessive usage of insecticide. That’s why I was curious about ‘ugly’ produce when I first saw ads for Imperfect Foods (formerly known as Imperfect Produce) and Misfits Market on Instagram.
After hearing rave reviews from a friend who uses Misfits' subscription service, I decided to give both a try.
What is an ugly produce subscription?
Although it might be a novel idea to some people, the farm-to-consumer approach for distributing produce is not new. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs and local farmers' markets connect consumers with local growers, for example. What's different with ugly produce businesses is that they operate as middlemen to source otherwise unsellable produce—fruits and vegetables that are malformed or otherwise undesirable but fine to eat—from farms nationwide. The benefit? A larger variety of seasonal and non-native fresh produce becomes available to be shipped directly to consumers, bypassing the local grocers who’d see the same items rot in stores because image-conscious shoppers passed them by. In some cases, the “imperfection” is simply that a grower had a surplus of a certain crop beyond the needs of the stores, so fine-looking produce can also end up in an “ugly” produce box. And the prices of these services, even with delivery right to your door, is comparable if not better than what you'd find in the supermarket.
How do you order ugly produce boxes?
The two services we tested operate somewhat similarly, but with a few key differences.
Imperfect Foods: First, you create an account and set up your delivery intervals, either once a week or once every two weeks. You’ll have the option to choose a preferred delivery day but the flexibility depends on your zip code. My area, Cambridge, Mass., for example, has delivery on Mondays and Fridays. With Imperfect, you can customize what comes in your box up to two days before the shipping day, or just let the system automatically puts together a box of fruits and vegetables for you, either organic (for about $24) or conventional (for about $16).
After placing my first order of auto-selected items, I browsed the customization options. On the sidebar, I could see the assigned items with their prices listed, either per pound (organic carrots were $1.45 a pound) or per unit (organic avocados rang in at two for $2.24). I could remove and add conventional or organic produce and even pantry items (pasta, nuts, and so on). Any changes I made updated the total price of the box.
All the products also list the country of origin, and most I saw were foreign imports. The site also identifies the type of imperfection. For instance, the organic green kale I got was not perfect because it was surplus. The sweet potatoes were rejected by grocers because of odd shapes and large sizes. I also received some carrots that naturally grew into each other and looked twisted. Some of the apples I got had minor bruises, simply from falling to the ground due to maturation.
Misfits Market: With this service, you also select the size of your produce box, with the option to give them as gift boxes. The small “Mischief” box ($22) contains mixed fruits and vegetables from certified organic, non-GMO farms across the Americas, weighing between 10 to 13 pounds. The large “Madness” box ($35) includes more of the same, weighing between 18 to 22 pounds. Unlike with Imperfect Foods, you're not told specifically what to expect in the boxes, the source countries of the produce, or exactly what their imperfections might be.
After you choose the size of your subscription box, you set the delivery intervals: once a week or once every two weeks. You can choose your preferred delivery day (Tuesday through Saturday) before checkout. If you change your mind about the delivery day, you can log in up to two days before and change your preferences.
The company just started offering order customization in select delivery areas (mine isn't one of them), with the goal of rolling it out to all customers soon. While I wasn’t given the option to add or subtract specific items from the boxes, I felt confident I’d get a better variety than from a local CSA, which can only include whatever grew that week in one region (rather than across the country) and could mean a disproportionate amount of one ingredient to use up quickly before it spoils.
Both subscriptions allow you to skip a delivery without being charged, if you'll be traveling or just don't want to cook that week.
How does the delivery process work?
Imperfect Foods: This company delivers to mostly metropolitan areas, including the west coast, the northeast, the midwest states, and Texas. They company is quickly expanding, so there will be more options available soon.
The box comes with very minimal packaging, which I appreciated. You receive a text letting you know your box is an hour away and another text indicating the box has arrived. All of Imperfect's deliveries are scheduled in the afternoons. The only drawback of that is, on a very hot and humid summer day, a box ended up sitting on my porch for a couple hours. I happened to have ordered leafy greens in that box, which didn’t fare the heat well and started to wilt.
Misfits Market: These boxes comes from a regional facility (ours is in New Jersey) on a UPS courier truck. The box delivers within 24 hours by the UPS. Misfits Market currently delivers to 20 states in the US, with plans to expand. It comes with relatively heavy packaging: paper padding with recyclable plastic wrapped around it, multiple reusable ice packs, and some bags to separate the produce. All that packaging does a good job keeping everything as fresh as possible, but as someone who doesn’t have much storage space in her freezer for ice packs, figuring out how to recycle everything in the boxes was a struggle.
What can I expect in my ugly produce boxes?
Imperfect Produce: I customized my box a lot because I could, and I appreciated the convenience it gave me as a meal prepper. I cook almost every day, so it was important for me to know what ingredients I would have in advance. In my first box, I selected organic carrots, broccoli, plums, and ginger; for conventional goods, I chose oyster mushroom, and Brussels sprouts. In my most recent one, I got conventional Turkish figs, Brussels sprouts, and organic produce such as lettuce, peaches, white mushrooms, and Persian limes. All the leafy greens I received were surplus and they were flawless by appearance. Some items, such as butternut squash and yellow squash, were oddly shaped but tasted delicious. Others, like the stone fruit, has small scarring or other superficial marks, but these didn't affect their exquisite flavor. With the first box, I made a salad with the included grapefruit, green leaf lettuce, and one avocado. I also made a salad by grilling the rainbow carrots and placing them over some chopped tomatoes, radicchio lettuce, and looseleaf lettuce.
Misfits Market: In these noncustomizable boxes, I received a well-rounded group of in-season fruits and vegetables. In the summer, I got peaches, onions, broccoli, and red plums. The onions had some bruises on the outside—but no one really eats the onion skins, right?—I just peeled them off and the inside was good. As we transitioned into fall, I got Kabocha squash, apples, and sweet potatoes. For the starchy root vegetables, I noticed weird shapes but no scarring or bruises. The boxes also included some ingredients I rarely touch when it comes to home cooking. For example, I thought the Romanesco broccoli was a strange-looking vegetable, but it inspired me to look for recipes to cook it. I ended up making this broccoli-cheddar quiche, that according to my colleague, “tasted exactly like broccoli cheddar soup.” I also cooked my favorite Thai green curry with the tomatoes and bell peppers in the box. With a different delivery, I made some maple-glazed asparagus and several salads. For its part, Misfits also includes recipe cards with suggestions of how to cook meals with the box contents, though I didn't find these that helpful, as often they called for other ingredients or more of them than were included in the box.
With both services, I still found myself making additional grocery shopping trips to have everything I needed for my recipes. For example, I received one bell pepper in my first Imperfect box, but I normally like to use two or three bell peppers in one dish.
Do ugly produce subscriptions actually save you money?
If you’re only interested in organic fruits and vegetables, the answer is yes. For the conventional items, the pricing is about the same as grocery stores. That said, I did some math with my weekly grocery bill. On the week I shopped only at the store without the subscription box, I discovered that I spent way more on processed foods than I did on whole fruits and vegetables. These subscriptions had made me fall in love with fresh foods and reshaped my dietary habits, without my even realizing it! I found myself happily eating more produce than before, which may be the best value they can offer, irrelevant of their monetary cost.
Is the business model of ugly produce sustainable?
When I mentioned to my friends that I'd be trying these ugly produce subscriptions, some raised the concern as to whether these services significantly reduce donations to food banks. I saw this as a legitimate issue and did some research. After rounds of phone calls and interviews, it appears that food banks generally don’t take fresh produce donations at all. Why? Because from the food bank’s perspective, it’s costly to keep that produce fresh and edible and it requires more labor work to prepare it. Imperfect Foods also assures us that it sources its produce after the food banks pick what they want.
Another concern I had was the packaging. The Imperfect boxes win that contest, hands down, with very little packaging to recycle and the option to have the delivery person collect the previous week's empty box when the next delivery box arrives. For its part, the Misfits box uses recyclable or compostable products for all the packaging—though it can be exhausting to recycle everything properly.
Is it easy to cancel the subscriptions?
Both subscriptions are easy to cancel. Just log into your account, go to “manage subscription,” and terminate future deliveries. If you wish to skip a box or two, you may select those options through the same portal.
Who should try Imperfect Produce?
This box is for the picky eater or the type-A meal prepper (like me). My favorite feature is that you can customize the contents ahead of time, and that you get an email reminder to do so, two days before your scheduled delivery. Aside from choosing between organic and conventional produce, you can also buy non-produce items such as pasta, honey, and cereal. The selection isn’t as broad as what you can find at the store, so I still had to make an extra grocery shopping trip to get ingredients for my go-to recipes.
Who should try Misfits Market?
If you're one who loves surprises, Misfits is for you. The only customization currently available is that you can choose the size of your box. What’s in the box? You find out upon receiving it. Before my first one, I was skeptical about the “surprise” factor—it felt anxiety-inducing to wind up with a 13-pound box of fruits and vegetables without know what I'd do with them. In the first shipment, I got a bunch of broccoli, which I don’t usually buy unless I put myself on a diet plan. But I realized how fun it was to discover new recipes to use the novel-to-me ingredients I received. On the flip side, if you’re not so adventurous as a chef or an eater—and until they roll out customization options for all customers in all areas—you might be less of a fan of Misfits Market.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.