Christopher Reynolds, Canadian Press – February 12, 2024 / 5:37 am | History: 471922
Photo: Canadian Press
Anna Stegink, owner and operator of online grocery store Eat Impact, poses for a photograph at the company's warehouse in Barrie, Ontario, on Thursday, February 8, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov
Outside Barrie, Ontario, sunlight bathes the discarded cucumbers and parsley piled high in the Eat Impact warehouse.
Online grocery workers sort and pack containers of these castoffs and misfits – tentacled carrots, scarred bananas, bulbous potatoes – for home deliveries across southern Ontario.
“The goal is to help people eat better, save money and combat 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 a recent crop of online grocers say are just as tasty — if a little gummy.
Billions of pounds of Canadian products go to waste every year, much of it because they don't meet the strict cosmetic criteria followed by the retail industry.
“It either rots in the refrigerator, in the landfill or in the farmer’s field,” Stegink said.
Big retailers sell mostly premium fruits and vegetables, leaving farmers and distributors stuck with piles of fresh, perfectly edible but not very photogenic produce.
Cucumbers, for example, must meet strict length and width restrictions and be straight, only “moderately tapered” and of “good characteristic green color” to achieve grade one classification, federal agricultural regulations state.
Meanwhile, supermarket bills continue to rise. Canadian families will pay, on average, almost $1,800 more on groceries this year than they will in 2022, according to an annual report on the food industry by researchers at four Canadian universities.
“Prioritizing healthy eating and purchasing these fresh produce has become more difficult for many of us,” 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 grocer Spud says it saved nearly 84,000 pounds of imperfect produce from the landfill last year, selling everything from chipped apples to oddly shaped oranges in the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast, as well as in Calgary and Edmonton, British Columbia. areas.
Subscribers save up to 50% on their items compared to traditional brick-and-mortar stores, said manager Emma McDonald. They have the added benefit of eating fresher food, made possible by direct-to-door delivery, which bypasses the produce aisle. About 90% of its inventory is delivered within 48 hours, she said.
Given the savings, awareness about waste and the trend towards regional organic products, it's no surprise that many subscribers are younger.
“We’re serving families and multi-person households who are a little busier, looking to save time or prioritize organic and local,” McDonald said, noting that Spud has been offering imperfect products for eight years — although business has picked up recently.
“Many of our customers are physically disabled and cannot go to the supermarket alone. And some people who rely on takeout now have this option to have healthy meals that don't hurt their wallets,” she added.
McDonald herself likes the bananas for smoothies — 18 yellow ones for $5 in a recent deal — and the “Pugly” potatoes from local grower Fraserland Organics, which Spud sells in two-pound bags for $6.
Many produce delivery services have relationships with nearby producers. Vicky Ffrench, who runs Cookstown Greens – one of around 10 farms that Eat Impact relies on directly – said online grocery stores have fostered greater awareness that it's just as easy to enjoy a parsnip root or parsley that might not have grown to normal size, or a potato that may look like a heart.
Getting the word out further remains one of the biggest challenges — “just educating the consumer that there are options for them to buy discounted groceries,” 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, harvested from farms and greenhouses in southwestern Ontario, the Niagara region and Quebec's eastern municipalities, although they also stock from Mexico and California, especially in winter.
The company recently launched in Ottawa and serves most of the area between London, Ontario. and Montreal.
It also offers overproduced foods, as well as “short code” products – items packaged 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 anything, it doesn't really affect me. If someone is willing to give it to you at a discount, it’s a huge savings,” Fitzsimons said.
Local sourcing of many items suits her environmentalism, but she also appreciates items from far away places.
“It makes you try different things,” she said, noting that she tried a persimmon for the first time thanks to the service. Now she is a regular buyer of the sweet fruit.
Most large grocery stores offer discounts on products that are close to their expiration date. But often the product “is very out of stock,” Fitzsimmons said. “You're really not going to buy soft potatoes.”
But those gnarly ones with a blemish or two?