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Ben Simon targets waste with new Imperfect Produce project

About 6 billion pounds of produce is wasted each year in the United States simply because of appearance, according to Ben Simon. As a student at the University of Maryland, Simon co-founded the Food Recovery Network (FRN), the largest student-run waste-prevention movement. He sat down to chat about his newest project, Imperfect Produce, which aims to give consumers access to "ugly produce" at steep discounts and has just partnered with Raley's, a major grocery chain.

How did Imperfect Produce start?

Two or three years ago, I was on a phone call with Jonathan Bloom, one of the national experts on food waste. I started asking where the most food going to waste could be recovered. Jonathan talked about farms. FRN did a pilot two years ago called the Recovered Food CSA. We sold produce that otherwise would be wasted to students at a discount. It was a great project, but it only reached about 600 customers each week.

Up to now you have been on the East Coast. Why move to California?

It's estimated that California grows over one-half of our produce. I connected with Ron Clark, another Imperfect Produce co-founder. About 15 years ago, Ron was working for the California Assn. of Food Banks, and they tasked him with developing Farm to Family; it's now a very successful program that sources 125 million pounds a year of "seconds" or "ugly produce" to the food banks within the state of California. Ron built out this amazing supply chain of 70 to 80 California growers and has been sourcing a good amount of produce. We joined forces [along with FRN co-founder Ben Chesler] with this vision of finding a home for the 6 billion pounds of ugly produce that goes to waste each year.

Has the ongoing drought affected your business model at all? It has not affected our business. There's still so much produce grown in California. Growers have billions of pounds of produce collectively each year that go to waste because of looks. Food waste is water waste. A very conservative estimate is that 25 to 50 gallons of water are used for every pound of produce grown.

How does Imperfect work? We source produce from across California. Often we receive it only a day or so before we're packing it. Our drivers drop boxes off on people's doorsteps or convenient drop-off points. We hope to have about 200 weekly customers by our Aug. 7 soft launch and 1,000 by December. Currently we're focused on the Oakland and Berkeley areas. By Year 2 we want to expand to the rest of the Bay Area. By Year 3 we want to expand to Los Angeles, Sacramento and several other major California cities.

Tell about your collaboration with Raley's. It's the first major U.S. retail chain that's selling ugly produce. We're sourcing the produce for Raley's through our supply chain. We're extremely excited, and we've gotten great response so far from social media and the public. It seems everyone is excited to try it out.

Imperfect Produce: 1385 63rd St., Emeryville, Calif., (617) 259-0377, www.imperfectproduce.com

noelle.carter@latimes.com

Twitter: @noellecarter

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