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This Entrepreneur Wants to Feed the Hungry with Ugly and Misshapen Produce

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega This Entrepreneur Wants to Feed the Hungry with Ugly and Misshapen ProducePhoto via Misfits Market.
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People are hungry, and good food is going to waste. Enter: Misfits Market, a subscription service delivering low-cost, mildly ugly produce to frugal or limited-budget buyers.

A Philadelphia-based operation, Misfits Market is the brain child of Abhi Ramesh, a native Atlantan who, while apple-picking at a farm near Philadelphia, observed a peculiar practice by the orchard farmers. As apples fell from the trees, they’d grab them up and end up storing them in a cooler, from there selling what they could or using them as pig food or compost.

Having lived and worked in Philadelphia, Ramesh couldn’t help but have an issue with apples being tossed while neighborhoods back home were struggling to access fresh produce.

“People don’t have access to fresh, affordable, organic produce,” Ramesh says. “Here I was, 45 minutes away from Philly, at a farm where even on a single day thousands of apples were being thrown away, just because they were scarred or had aesthetic imperfections.”

As Ramesh explored further, he found that it isn’t just one farm discarding its misshapen, too-big, too-small, or off-color produce. He visited between 30 and 40 throughout New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania; and every farm is doing it.

The national statistics line up. In the United States, produce makes up the biggest component of municipal landfills, with nearly half of all produce going to waste, or 150,000 tons per day. Despite the blatantly harmful environmental impact and the loss it means for those who are chronically hungry, a simple lack of infrastructure is what’s keeping those fruits and vegetables from getting to the millions currently going without.

For farmers to donate their unused produce to food banks, it would require them to eat a lot of the cost. Produce is relatively inexpensive, but transporting it hours away takes time, resources and money. To farmers, it makes more sense to sell what they can at farmers markets. 

And, even getting the produce to food banks still relies on people and families to get to the food they need. That’s why Misfits is box-based. Ramesh says the company relies a lot on digital marketing — zip code- and neighborhood-based targeting on social media — to get their boxes to needy areas. 

Here in Ohio, one in seven people, and one in five children are chronically hungry. Our food insecurity rate has us on one of those not-so-ideal top 10 lists alongside Kentucky, Louisiana and Oklahoma. 

Photo from Feeding America.

Zoom in on Franklin County and the rate inches even further upward (16.5 percent). In many neighborhoods, half or more of the residents are living at or below the poverty level, miles away from the nearest grocery and with no family vehicle to get them there. Some are low income but make at or above 185 percent of the federal poverty level, and therefore don’t qualify for federal aid.

Dr. Jennifer Garner, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of food and nutrition policy at the Ohio State University, says for some families, obtaining fresh food is just one element in the juggling act they have to do to achieve basic survival.

“At the root of it, though, is poverty and the stress associated with worrying about how your household is going to balance its finite resources, including both time and money, to meet day-to-day needs. And food is just one of these needs,” Garner said in an email. “Households with less disposable income must balance the expenses and time associated with purchasing and preparing food with other expenses and needs such as housing and healthcare.”

Ramesh says that while Misfits Market is no silver bullet, it can get produce to households that need it at a decent price and with some food information included. Subscribers have access to between 10 and 20 pounds of produce — including uncommon items they may never have tried before — as well as ideas for how to use each fruit or veggie, and assurance that a bruised or wrinkly item isn’t necessarily inedible.

“What we’re doing is educating people around the food waste problem,” says Ramesh, “saying, you know, this cucumber, just because it’s shriveled and curved, doesn’t mean it’s any less nutritious or fresh compared to a straight cucumber.”

Ramesh says that while Misfits is a pioneer in the ugly produce industry, he sees room for many other players to come on the scene. And with the size of the food waste problem being so massive, he says it’d actually be beneficial for more entrepreneurs to take the dive.

Misfits Market currently offers two box options, the smaller 10-12 pound “Mischief” box, and the larger 18-20 pound “Madness” box. Ramesh says more customizations are coming soon.

To subscribe or learn more, visit misfitsmarket.com.

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