Ben Chesler (left) and Ben Simon at their Imperfect Produce warehouse.(Photo/Colette Krey)
Ben Chesler (left) and Ben Simon at their Imperfect Produce warehouse.(Photo/Colette Krey)

These college friends fight food waste by spinning ugly produce into gold

Name: Ben Simon and Ben Chesler
Ages: 27 and 25
City: San Francisco
Profession: CEO and COO, Imperfect Produce

J.: In 2015, you two launched Imperfect Produce, which rescues “ugly” produce from farms and packing houses and delivers it to households via a subscription-based service. Your efforts have gotten national attention and prevented 6.1 million pounds of food from being thrown away. How did you guys meet, and when did you become passionate about food waste?

Ben Chesler: I was 18, taking some time off before college and working in D.C. when our paths crossed. We started hanging out at the University of Maryland, doing things with the social action club, trying to make social action important on college campuses.

Ben Simon: I was a freshman in college and did a report about food waste for a public speaking class. I ended up going down that rabbit hole, reading websites and blogs. Nobody was talking about food waste then. It blew my mind that we waste 40 percent of our food. It was also a culture shock for me to see people with different values who would purchase a sandwich and throw half of it in the trash.

Imperfect Produce is an offshoot of the Food Recovery Network, which began at the University of Maryland. What prompted that idea?

BS: We saw firsthand food being wasted in the dining hall. At the pizza and pasta station, we literally saw them throwing away good food. We chased that lead and connected with the director of the dining halls and asked for permission to recover the food. The first chapter of the Food Recovery Network was at Maryland [Simon’s alma mater] and the second at Brown [Chesler’s alma mater]. Now, we’re on more than 200 campuses in nearly every state and have saved over 2 million pounds of perfectly good surplus food. The food goes to hunger-fighting nonprofits like soup kitchens, homeless shelters and religious organizations.

How did that become Imperfect Produce?

BS: When doing the Network, we learned a ton about food waste. For example, 1 in 5 pieces of produce gets wasted due to cosmetic issues. I went on a farm tour with Ron Clark, our third partner, and he opened my eyes to this injustice. I went with a sweet potato from a California farm to Providence, where Ben was, and said “This is what we’re doing next year.”

You both are in your 20s. Is food waste an issue for your generation?

BS: The issue has exponentially blown up in terms of consumer awareness. Seven years ago, no one was talking about it. Since then, there have been hundreds if not thousands of startups trying to fight food waste. Within college campuses, it’s been one of the longest student movements.

The company has tripled in size and has more than 10,000 subscribers who pay from $11 to $43, depending on size and contents, for weekly box delivery. Who is your typical customer?

BS: We trend toward women, millennials, Gen Xers — folks who don’t have a loyalty to a major retailer or feel tied to an in-person shopping experience. They are tech-literate and social-minded people. The No. 1 and 2 reasons people love our service is because of the price, and because we are fighting food waste.

What’s next for the company?

BS: We are in a growth mode. Currently, we serve the Bay Area, Los Angeles and Portland. We will open next month in Seattle and are looking at San Diego and Sacramento. Then we want to look east. We want to serve every major city in the country in the next couple of years.

BC: Today, our challenges are growing to scale, being a socially minded company, giving back to the world, and growing into a company that will effect change in the marketplace.

How does Judaism influence your mission?

BC: I’m the kid who grew up in a culturally Jewish home. Judaism stood for community and sharing food was part of that. We’re not a nonprofit, but getting people to share is connected to my Jewish values.

BS: If you look at our Jewish history, we Jews have gone through eras when there was tremendous abundance and tremendous scarcity. I was taught during times of abundance to be appreciate and to carve out something for the larger community, to help people facing scarcity and poverty, and to extend a hand. This is our vehicle to make the world a better place.

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Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.