On the outskirts of Barrie, Ont., sunlight bathes banished cucumbers and parsley stacked on skids at Eat Impact’s warehouse.
The online grocer’s workers sort and pack containers of these discarded and inadequate products — tentacled carrots, scarred bananas, bulbous potatoes — for home delivery across southern Ontario.
“The goal is to help people eat better, save money and fight food waste at the same time,” said Anna Stegink, who founded Eat Impact in late 2022.
With prices rising and budgets stretched, consumers are increasingly turning to so-called imperfect foods to save on products that online grocers say are just as delicious — if a little lumpy.
Billions of pounds of Canadian produce end up in the trash every year, most of it because they don’t meet the strict cosmetic standards the retail industry holds.
“It rots in a refrigerator, in a landfill or in a farmer’s field,” Stegink said.
Dominant retailers sell primarily premium fruits and vegetables, leaving farmers and distributors stuck with piles of fresh, perfectly edible but not entirely photogenic produce.
Cucumbers, for example, must conform to strict length and width restrictions and must be straight, only “moderately tapered” and “good distinctive green color” to qualify as first grade, federal agricultural regulations state.
Meanwhile, grocery bills are rising. Canadian families will pay an average of almost $1,800 more for groceries this year than in 2022, according to an annual food industry report by researchers at four Canadian universities.
“Prioritizing healthy eating and buying that fresh produce has become more difficult for many of us,” Stegink said. “Our idea to create Eat Impact was to connect imperfect, ugly and redundant produce with people who enjoy eating it.”
She is not alone.
Further west, online grocer Spud says it saved nearly 84,000 pounds of imperfect produce from the landfill last year by selling everything from crushed apples to the odd orange across British Columbia’s lower mainland, Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast, as well as Calgary and Edmonton. areas.
Subscribers save up to 50 per cent on their items compared to traditional physical stores, said manager Emma McDonald. They have the added benefit of eating fresher food made possible by direct-to-doorstep delivery that bypasses produce aisles. About 90 percent of inventory is turned over within 48 hours, she said.
Given the savings, awareness of waste and inclination towards regional organic goods, it is not surprising that many of the subscribers are younger.
“We serve families and multi-member households that are a little bit busier, that want to save time, or that prefer the organic, local aspect,” McDonald said, noting that Spud has been offering incomplete produce for eight years — though the company has recently expanded.
“Many of our customers are physically challenged and cannot get to the store by themselves. And some people who might have relied on takeout now have that option to prepare healthy meals that don’t hurt their wallets,” she added.
McDonald herself likes bananas for smoothies — 18 yellow ones for $5 in a recent deal — and “Pugly” potatoes from local grower Fraserland Organics, which Spud sells in five-pound bags for $6.
Many product delivery services are connected to nearby manufacturers. Vicky Ffrench, who runs Cookstown Greens – one of around 10 farms directly used by Eat Impact – said online grocers had encouraged more awareness that it was just as easy to enjoy parsnips or parsley root, which might still not grown to full size, or a potato that could look like a heart.
Spreading the word remains one of the biggest challenges — “just educating the consumer that there are options to buy groceries at a discount,” Ffrench said.
Launched 18 months ago by 25-year-old Divy Ojha, Odd Bunch offers up to once a week seven different boxes of produce sourced from farms and greenhouses in southwestern Ontario, the Niagara region and Quebec’s eastern urban areas, though they also stock from Mexico and California, especially in winter.
The company was recently established in Ottawa and serves most of the area between London, Ont. and Montreal.
It also offers foods that have been produced in excess, as well as products that have been “short coded” – products packaged with the wrong expiration date.
Toronto resident Larissa Fitzsimons started buying Odd Bunch fruits and vegetables two years ago before switching to Eat Impact, which she likes for the flexibility of picking and choosing from their drop-down menu for weekly boxes.
“I don’t care if it’s an odd shape or whatever, it doesn’t affect me at all. If someone is willing to give it to you at a discount, that’s a huge savings,” Fitzsimons said.
Locally sourcing many items fits with her environmentalism, but she also enjoys items from afar.
“It draws you in to try different things,” she said, noting that thanks to the service, she tried khaki for the first time. Now it’s a regular bunch of sweet fruit.
Most major grocers offer discounts on goods nearing their expiration date. But often the crop is “quite a long way off,” Fitzsimmons said. “You really won’t buy soft potatoes.”
But ugly with a spot or two?
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on February 12, 2024.