Meet the CEO selling boxes of "ugly" produce to help solve our food waste crisis
Most subscription meal boxes push the image of the ideal dinner. Perfectly portioned amounts of food sealed tightly and packed just so into a box adorned with the Instagram-friendly handiwork of a graphic designer. Then, once the meal is prepared, the flawless veggies and proteins appear as if they were hand-picked to become influencers themselves.
The way that you end up with such a presentation is through lots of curation, which means lots of food that isn't quite so photogenic being tossed aside. The same thing happens at grocery stores, where produce that looks less than perfect often ends up in the trash. Researchers believe that as much as half of all produce made in the United States is thrown out, often for simply failing to be aesthetically pleasing. That amounts to as much as six billion pounds of fruits, vegetables, and other farm-made crops rotting away in landfills not because it isn't good enough to eat, but because it isn't good enough to look at.
Misfits Market saw the beauty — and the opportunity — in this otherwise wasted produce. Started in 2018 by founder and CEO Abhi Ramesh, Misfits Market is bringing ugly produce to the homes of folks who might not otherwise have access to it. Veggies that aren't quite the right shape, discolored fruits, and other produce that just looks a little funky but still tastes great all go into boxes delivered right to a person's doorstep. Customers can choose between two different sized boxes, which include either 12 or 14 types of produce and cost $22 to $35 per box, depending on the selection.
Ramesh, who describes himself as someone who has "done a little bit of a lot of things," tells Mic the idea for Misfits Market came about while he was working in the world of finance. "We were looking at some distressed food logistics companies, and I learned at the time that roughly one-third of the food that is produced in the US does not make it to the end market because it is wasted somewhere along the way due to inefficiency," he says. Ramesh has been aware of the idea of food waste for most of his life. His family immigrated to the United States from India when he was five years old, and he says cooking meals at home was a big deal in his household. "I used to get yelled at any time I'd throw away even a tiny piece of food left on my plate," he says. "Eating out wasn't really a thing we would do."
That experience made Ramesh particularly sensitive to the idea of food waste. It also made him aware of who was most likely suffering from that waste: communities that have little access to fresh produce. In the US, nearly 24 million people — half of them considered low-income households — live in areas that are known as food deserts.
"I went to college in Philadelphia, I've lived in Philly for the better part of probably 10 years now, and there are so many neighborhoods here in the metropolitan area where, if you want to find fresh produce, you would be very hard-pressed to do so," Ramesh says. "The local bodega has cheesesteaks and chips, but no one has an apple or a banana."
For Ramesh and the Misfits Market team, the problem of food waste and lack of access seems to be an ideal match. There are lots of perfectly good if slightly misshapen foods out there that can be delivered to the homes of people who would otherwise not be able to get them. In 2018, they started working to create a supply chain that would address both of these problems at once. It started with Ramesh driving a rented UHaul van to farms across eastern Pennsylvania, collecting "ugly" produce and delivering it personally to people living in Philadelphia.
The business has grown substantially since then. Ramesh says that Misfits Market now has two fulfillment centers and more than 900 employees who work to serve about 250,000 customers across the East Coast and Midwest. That number is still growing, and Ramesh says word of mouth has been the company's most effective method for reaching communities. "A household will find us, they'll start using us and they'll say, 'Hey, I'm saving a ton of money every week on my groceries and I'm getting assortments I wouldn't get locally,' and they start referring their neighbors and friends and family," Ramesh says. That has led to smaller markets being a haven for Misfits' unique brand of produce. Erie, Pennsylvania, a quiet coastal town of just 95,000 people, has become "a pretty big hub" for Ramesh's company, thanks largely to referrals throughout the community.
For many, Misfits doesn't just provide access that would otherwise be hard to come by — it also offers savings. According to Ramesh, Misfits Market customers save "probably 30 to 40 percent on average across the entire shopping cart." then there's the convenience of delivery. Misfits ships in eco-friendly, recyclable, and compostable boxes that come at a $5.50 flat fee. While that does add a slight premium to the service, it can still often be cheaper, or at least comparable, to the cost of driving or taking public transit the 10 or more miles required to get to the local grocery store that carries fresh produce.
The Misfits mission of bringing fresh foods to those who have limited access doesn't end there. Ramesh said the company has started to purchase food from consumer packaged goods manufacturers that otherwise would never make it to market and is offering bundles to its shoppers "at a big discount from retail prices." The company is also setting up community refrigerators, which are publicly accessible fridges stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables that are available for free to anyone who wants to take some. Several of these fridges have popped up around Philadelphia, New York City, and Florida.
The fridges are a way of injecting these fresh foods into communities that lack access, but Ramesh believes that his company will really be able to reach these food deserts when it can accept payment from people using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Currently, most online retailers like Misfits Market can't take this type of payment, which is provided to low-income households to help them purchase groceries. A push is underway to address this, and Ramesh says that accepting SNAP "will have a huge impact on the hunger problem and the access problem."
Misfits Market doesn't quite fit into the current way that many people get their produce. But that current system is leaving tens of millions of Americans behind, unable to access the types of food that enable them to live a healthier lifestyle. An obsession with perfection created an imperfect supply chain. Maybe the imperfect and discarded produce that has been wasted by that system can solve it.