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Shoppers turn to ‘imperfect produce’ as grocery prices rise

Outside Barrie, Ontario, sunlight bathes cucumber and parsley stacked on skids in the Eat Impact warehouse.

Online grocery workers sort and pack containers of these rejects and misfits—tentacled carrots, branded bananas, bulbous potatoes—for home deliveries across southern Ontario.

“The goal is to help people eat better, save money and fight food waste all at the same time,” said Anna Stegink, who founded Eat Impact in late 2022.

With prices rising and budgets tight, consumers are increasingly turning to so-called imperfect foods to save on products that, according to a new crop of online grocers, are just as tasty, if a little twisted.

Billions of pounds of Canadian products are wasted each year, largely because they do not meet the strict cosmetic criteria that the retail industry adheres to.

“It rots in the refrigerator, in the landfill or in the farmer’s field,” says Stegink.

Major retailers sell mostly premium fruits and vegetables, leaving farmers and distributors stuck with piles of fresh produce, perfectly edible but not entirely photogenic.

Cucumbers, for example, must conform to strict length and width restrictions and be straight, only “moderately tapered” and of “good characteristic green color” to achieve first-grade classification, federal agricultural regulations state.

Meanwhile, grocery bills continue to rise. Canadian families will pay almost $1,800 more on average for food this year than in 2022, according to an annual report on the food industry by researchers at four Canadian universities.

“For many of us, prioritizing healthy eating and buying these fresh produce has become more difficult,” Stegink said. “Our idea was to start Eat Impact to connect imperfect, ugly and surplus products with people who are happy to eat them.”

She is not alone.

Further west, online grocery store Spud says it saved nearly 84,000 pounds of imperfect produce from the landfill last year by selling everything from sliced ​​apples to oddly shaped oranges in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast, as well as in Calgary and Edmonton. areas.

Subscribers save up to 50 percent on their items compared to traditional outlets, said manager Emma McDonald. They have the added benefit of eating fresher foods, made possible by direct home delivery without going through the produce aisle. About 90 percent of its inventory is delivered within 48 hours, she said.

Given the savings, awareness of waste, and inclination toward regional organic produce, it’s no surprise that many subscribers are younger.

“We’re serving families and multi-person households that are a little busier, looking to save time or are prioritizing that organic, local aspect,” McDonald said, noting that Spud has offered imperfect products for eight years, though business has ramped up. recently.

“Many of our customers have physical disabilities and cannot go to the supermarket by themselves. And some people who might rely on takeout now have this option to prepare healthy meals that don’t hurt their wallets,” he added.

McDonald herself likes smoothie bananas (18 yellow ones for five dollars in a recent deal) and “Pugly” potatoes from local producer Fraserland Organics, which Spud sells in five-pound bags for six dollars.

Many produce delivery services have relationships with nearby producers. Vicky Ffrench, who runs Cookstown Greens, one of 10 farms Eat Impact uses directly, said online grocers have fostered greater awareness that it’s just as easy to enjoy a parsnip or parsley root as maybe it hasn’t grown to its full size, or a potato that might look like a heart.

Spreading the word further remains one of the biggest challenges: “just educating the consumer that there are options to purchase food at a discounted price,” Ffrench said.

Odd Bunch, launched by 25-year-old Divy Ojha 18 months ago, offers seven boxes of different produce up to once a week, sourced from farms and greenhouses in southwestern Ontario, the Niagara region and the eastern Quebec townships , although they also store from Mexico and California, especially in winter.

The company recently opened in Ottawa and serves most of the area between London and Ontario. and Montreal.

It also offers food that was produced in surplus, as well as “short-coded” products: packaged items with an incorrect expiration date.

Toronto resident Larissa Fitzsimons started buying fruits and vegetables from Odd Bunch two years ago before switching to Eat Impact, which she likes for the flexibility of choosing from its drop-down menu for weekly boxes.

“I don’t care if it’s a weird shape or whatever, it doesn’t really impact me. If someone is willing to give it to them at a discount, it will be a huge savings,” Fitzsimons said.

The local origin of many items fits with her environmentalism, but she also enjoys items from far away places.

“It allows you to try different things,” he said, noting that he tried a persimmon for the first time thanks to the service. She is now a regular buyer of this sweet fruit.

Most big box grocery stores offer discounts on products that are approaching their expiration date. But production is often “pretty depleted,” Fitzsimmons said. “You’re not actually going to buy soft potatoes.”

But gnarly ones with a blemish or two?

“Oh yeah.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2024.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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