“Misfits” of the Produce World

By Bonnie J. McCann

Humans have been tempted by the perfect apple since the Garden of Eden. Now, as then, that temptation can yield life-altering consequences. Whether it’s the perfect pomme or pebble-pocked pomme de terre, bruised bananas or cuddling carrots, Americans and other affluent world citizens place a high value on the aesthetics of their edibles.

As a society, we tend to shun these “ugly” fruits and vegetables. This culinary shaming hits farmers in the pocketbook when perfectly nutritious produce sits spoiling in the field. In turn, consumers watch food prices rise above their limited grocery budgets.

Denmark’s Stop Wasting Food Movement notes that food waste is hard on the planet, too, “squandering resources, including water, land, energy, labour, and capital and needlessly produces greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change. To  put this into perspective, if food loss and waste were its own country, it would be the world’s third-largest GHG (greenhouse gas) emitter – surpassed only by China and the United States.”

Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon. A network of regional non-profits, government agencies, and some start-up good companies have launched new initiatives to strengthen the connection between producers and consumers looking to save money and/or protect the planet.

For founder and CEO Abhi Ramesh, Misfits Market also tracks its origin to an apple episode not far from Harrisburg. While picking apples with his family, Abhi reached down to pick up an apple that had fallen from one of the surrounding trees. A member of the orchard staff advised him to leave the “dropped” apples on the ground.

“If there’s no official home for these apples, commercial orchards may load them into a trailer to deal with later. Meanwhile, nearly a billion people around the world are either starving or malnourished. I was shocked by those statistics,” he explained. “I have always been entrepreneurial, with a long-time interest in social enterprise. Most recently, I’ve been focused on technology solutions.”

But the more he learned about national and global food waste, and the longer he replayed the scenario of the orchard in his head, the more Ramesh wondered how his technical training at the University of Pennsylvania and his small business management experience might be applied to the challenges of hunger in America.

“For everything you eat, an equal portion goes to waste, rejected by the grocery store,” he added. “Meal kits – from Hello Fresh to Blue Apron – have introduced many Americans to the shared benefits of home cooking and healthy eating. But the idea of shipping produce in a box is staggeringly new.”

In terms of this unique “ugly duckling” market model, the closest competition is Imperfect Produce, based on the West Coast.

Misfits Market began shipping boxes during the soggy summer of 2018. In addition to meeting consumer demand for affordable, healthy produce, Misfits Market also made a conscious decision to create new career opportunities for local individuals. As the company reaches its first anniversary in business, there are 15 to 20 people in the corporate office in Philadelphia. Another 75 to 80 employees work in the warehouse, including many who live nearby in the North Philly neighborhood.

“There aren’t many jobs in this area with decent pay, so we are very happy to provide an opportunity for local people who want to work with us,” he added. “They are an integral part of our operation, pulling produce, building boxes, and packing the fruits and vegetables.”

“I’ve spent the better part of my life studying, living, and working in Philadelphia. I love the fact that it’s so close to a ton of metropolitan areas,” he added. “Within a couple hours’ drive, you can reach 50 million people.”

“Hungry Harvest serves urban areas in cities including Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, but there’s a lot of opportunity to expand food access. Philadelphia is one of the largest cities in the country, but it’s also the poorest of the nation’s 10 major cities, with a poverty rate double the national average,” he noted. “There are several food deserts within a 50-mile radius of Center City Philadelphia. Residents here have limited access to fresh food and healthy eating options, so Philadelphia is a meaningful place to start a unique business that can provide access to everyone.”

The company is strategically located near the Port of Philadelphia, with access to global wholesalers to supply a variety of citrus, avocados, and tropical treats to augment seasonal domestic produce. One of those local farms, Landisdale Farm in Lebanon County, received its first order for surplus sweet potatoes last fall.

“Misfits Market contacted us  last September. It was excellent for us, because they were able to take up to 10,000 pounds of surplus sweet potatoes each week at the end of the season. We like sweet potatoes, but you can only eat so many of them. In the past, we’ve fed them to our animals,” said farmer Dan Landis, who also supplies Tuscarora Organic Growers. “Misfits Market also bought the last crop of our lettuce, and we hope to raise some greens for them this season.”

“Our mission is to provide affordable access to areas with zip codes that aren’t being served by our competition, and that area includes most of Pennsylvania and much of the Northeast region,” Ramesh explained. “In fact, Harrisburg was one of our first expansion markets, when we launched service in late winter. We ship fresh, imperfect produce for up to 50 percent less than what you pay in stores.

“Every order for a box of Misfits produces multiple benefits: supporting local farmers, reducing food waste, and ultimately helping to save our environment,” Ramesh continued.  “Our rapidly expanding Philadelphia-based operation rescues produce from regional farms and distributes it throughout the Northeast in four business days or less. We envision a waste-free world where no one struggles to afford healthy food, and we’re starting to make that change with ugly produce.”

Market research determined that average consumers waste $3,000 to $5,000 per year, or $60 to $70 per week, on fresh produce.

Misfits’ subscription boxes come in two sizes. The Mischief Box, which serves one or two people for a week, costs $19 per box plus shipping. At $34 per box plus shipping, the Madness Box contains 18 to 20 pounds of organic mixed produce and veggies to feed five people for a week.

The company currently delivers to five states in the east and northeastern regions of the country, with four more states in the queue. The company hopes to add SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, for low-income consumers.

As their website explains, “Misfits sources high-quality, fresh produce from our partners. You choose your box size and delivery frequency, and we deliver a box of Misfits to your door each week.” In keeping with the company’s commitment to minimize waste, the boxes and food packaging protect the produce without filling up the landfills.

For more information, visit www.misfitsmarket.com.