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Perfectly Imperfect

Take a trip to your local supermarket and you’re likely to see rows of brightly colored apples, bins of perfectly sized onions, and sacks of (mostly) round potatoes. 

But not all produce is as visually pleasing as what one sees in a grocery store. In fact, thousands of pounds of produce never even make it to store shelves because they’re deemed too large or small, not the right color, or otherwise unappealing in some way. Edible outer layers of lettuce are removed because of brown spots, curved cucumbers are seen as too misshapen and some fruits are turned away because they’re not the right shade.

“It could be a small quirk in appearance based on shape, size, or color that has no impact on flavor or nutrition,” explains Philip Behn, CEO of Imperfect Foods. “Beyond produce, perfectly good grocery items often go to waste for similarly illogical reasons. Grocers won’t purchase or stock goods that are close to expiration or going through packaging changes, regardless of quality.” 

Food waste is a major contributor to climate change. In fact, nonprofit group Project Drawdown named it the third biggest cause of climate change. According to Bloomberg, wasted food comprises up to 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and most of the waste releases methane, a less prominent but more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Food that’s grown but then wasted uses up about one-fifth of all fertilizer (a big source of greenhouse gases) and takes up about one-fifth of the space at landfills. 

From Ugly Produce to Full Harvest 

San Francisco-based startup company Full Harvest is on a mission to address food waste, particularly the imperfect, misshapen, or “ugly” produce that’s rejected by retailers (it’s estimated that rejected produce makes up about 40% of total food waste).

Full Harvest offers an online marketplace where farmers can sell ugly produce or surplus crops to food and beverage companies. This system helps farmers capitalize on misshapen produce that would otherwise go to waste and provides buyers with an easy, affordable way to purchase produce. 

CEO Christine Moseley says the idea for Full Harvest came about after a farm visit where she found herself “calf-deep in beautiful, edible romaine leaves” about to be discarded. With Full Harvest’s online marketplace, she says she aims “to reinvent the food system so that all food and beverage companies utilize imperfect and surplus produce to the fullest extent possible.” 

Full Harvest has gotten a lot of attention for its business-to-business digital platform. Last year, the AgFunder AgriFood Tech Innovation Awards recognized the company as one of the most innovative supply chain startups in the country. And Fast Company included Full Harvest’s business model on its list of World Changing Ideas for 2020.

A Changing Landscape. An Evolving Business Model

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as food security concerns and food waste continues to rise, Full Harvest has been able to expand its operations to address some of the challenges of the current moment. 

While many consumers observed empty grocery store shelves last spring, farmers suddenly found themselves with excess crops but no buyers. Restaurants, schools and other institutions that typically buy food in bulk were shuttered and no longer purchasing lemons by the pound or milk by the multiple gallons. Producers of bulk goods and specialty items were at a loss, unable to sell to their regular customers but also unable to sell directly to grocery stores due to size, color, and packaging requirements. 

California farmer Olivier Griss of Coke Farm is among those who were left with excess crops at the beginning of the pandemic. His chicory varieties and miniature artichokes typically end up at high-end restaurants, but this past spring, his usual restaurant vendors were all closed. The vegetables, past their prime, eventually had to be returned to the ground. 

The Full Harvest team has found a way to make use of some of these excess crops, including those of Coke Farm. Moseley originally wanted to route excess produce to food banks, where demand has risen since the pandemic, but many facilities lack the equipment and space to store food in bulk. 

Through partnerships with other nonprofit organizations, Full Harvest started a program that has now distributed 50,000 boxes of food to food-insecure families in Oakland, California. They’ve recently expanded to New York City where they hope to deliver another 48,000 boxes of food to families in need by the first week of September.

“This pandemic has shone a light on the food system and how many improvements are needed,” Moseley says. “You have this system that is mostly offline, that is slow and opaque.”

Full Harvest and its partners hope to extend the food box program to more cities, with plans to reach Los Angeles later this year.

Reducing food waste has proven to be an effective way to improve food security, an important issue amid the current landscape. Although effectively addressing food waste across the globe is a complex issue, and beyond the scope of any one organization, Full Harvest is undoubtedly doing its part. To date, the company has sold more than 20 million pounds of produce, which Moseley estimates has saved over a billion gallons of water. 

“My vision is a world where there is 0% food waste and 100% full harvests,” says Moseley, “where all edible produce grown goes toward consumption.”

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