You’ve probably heard about a subscription box or two that sells “ugly” produce as a way to combat food waste. The buzzy companies make some headway, but they’re ultimately a part of a narrative that pushes the burden of sustainability exclusively onto the customer.
Luckily, there are a couple of companies out there tackling the issue of food waste at the source and increasing accessibility to high-quality produce in the process.
Christine Moseley, founder and CEO of Full Harvest, worked at an organic green juice company that sold $13 juices and observed the company spending top dollar for produce that would just be processed.
“The more I looked into the food industry, the more I saw a lot of things done manually and offline,” says Moseley, 37, who also has experience with supply chains.
She moved to California four and a half years ago to research ways to innovate the industry. Moseley found that about 40% of all food was wasted and 20 billion pounds of produce is wasted at the farm level just because it’s not perfectly shaped for grocery stores.
“The moment that it all came together for me is when I went to one of the largest farms in the country to actually see if it was true,” continues Moseley.“And I saw them harvesting 25% of the romaine plant and wasting 75% of the rest of it immediately by turning it into the ground and it was perfectly edible.”
The agriculture industry is largely tailored to retailers and it’s often not cost-effective for farms to sell or donate that excess, especially small to mid-size farms. Full Harvest works with farms via an online marketplace and connects them with buyers like processors and food service businesses.
“Early successes include increasing profit for a large U.S. farm by 12% per acre, reducing the time it took a national consumer packaged goods (CPG) company to procure produce by 96%, and saving CPG companies an average of 15% off produce costs,” reads a 2018 Full Harvest press release.
On the consumer side, Misfits Market offers assistance to three parts of the supply chain: farmers, customers, and food banks.
“We’re laser-focused on accessibility and affordability,” says Abhi Ramesh, 27, Founder and CEO of Misfits Market. “Our focus is to get this out to folks who really need it. When we launch in an area or state, we launch in every single zip code of that state and not just the dense metropolitan area.”
Misfits Market mostly serves suburban customers, often families, who cook often and aren’t within walking distance of grocery stores. They currently deliver to Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Maine, Ohio, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, and they’re still expanding.
“I saw a fundamental inefficiency and disconnect around this idea that there were tens of millions of people in the U.S. alone that don’t have access to fresh, affordable food on a daily basis,” says Ramesh.
Misfits Market offers a small box for $22 and a larger box for $35, the latter being almost half the cost the equivalent amount of produce at a store. The company is also working on access for those using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but the dated program requires purchases to be made at physical locations.
“What we’re able to sell to our customers at an affordable price, we do, and what we don’t sell, we donate directly to food banks that are in regions we operate in,” continues Ramesh.
Many of these farms and food banks don’t have the infrastructure to connect with each other, so this service further minimizes waste. Produce for the food banks tends to be a bit more ready-to-eat while subscription box produce lasts for at least a week.
And these companies aren’t done innovating. Full Harvest received a Tech Pioneer award from the World Economic Forum for their efforts, which include a special team that works with growers to innovate in the field, literally. Moseley has no intention of stopping until the back-end of this massive industry is completely digitized:
“I think there’s a big opportunity to take what was previously [managed] over pen and paper and email and text messages and digitize this really critical supply chain that feeds the country and the world.”
Quotes have been edited and condensed.