Getting enough fresh fruits and vegetables to eat can be a hit or miss prospect in Cleveland's “food deserts” where full service grocery stores are hard to come by. At the same time, an astounding amount of produce and other food in the United States – more than 30 million tons a year – ends up in landfills.
A fourth-generation fruit-and-vegetable wholesaler in Cleveland is taking on those incongruities with a program designed to assist low-income families while tackling food waste.
Forest City Weingart Produce Co. has begun selling, at cost, fruits and vegetables that come through its warehouse every week that are totally healthy but cosmetically flawed – an eggplant with a scar, a dimpled orange, the oddly shaped tomato. The "Perfectly Imperfect" endeavor is a unique effort by which the wholesaler is packaging imperfect produce for purchase on a small scale for individuals, says Ashley Weingart, the company’s director of communications and community outreach.
It’s also part of a growing push across the country to save misshapen yet completely edible food from the dump. Writer Jordan Figueiredo has a social media campaign to promote the ugly produce movement on Twitter @UglyFruitAndVeg, and on Facebook.
“We see an opportunity to reduce food waste and help get more fruits and vegetables to the population that can’t afford them,” says Weingart as she assembles boxes of imperfect cantaloupes, green peppers, potatoes, eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, lemons and mangos.
Perfectly Imperfect sells the produce medleys every Friday. A 15-pound mixture goes for $15 or get 30 pounds for $25 at 4000 Orange Ave in Cleveland (call ahead to order at 216-881-3232). Shoppers also can sign up to have boxes delivered to their homes ($7.50 within the city, $10 elsewhere in the county and $15 for surrounding counties). The program is open to all.
Ashley’s husband Andy Weingart, whose great-grandfather founded the company in 1900, says the wholesaler used to throw out blemished produce that grocery stores didn’t want because they have trouble selling it to picky shoppers.
The company donates 100,000 pounds of imperfect produce to the Cleveland Area Food Bank every year and will continue doing so. But there is even more on hand, which led Ashley Weingart to hatch the idea for Perfectly Imperfect after joining the family business.
Weingart says she was struck by the contrast between the bounty of fruits and vegetables arriving every day at the Northern Ohio Food Terminal, the amount the company was discarding because of superficial flaws, and the need for nutritious food in surrounding neighborhoods - which includes some of the poorest zip codes in Ohio.
“It seems ridiculous. I can’t think of a better word at the moment,” she says. “There’s no reason why 40 million Americans should be food insecure, and that we should have 40 percent of the food in this country being wasted.”
Weingart and her husband practice what they preach when it comes to eating nourishing food, and are bringing up their three young children the same way.
“Our kids are adventurous eaters,” Weingart says. “I refuse to cut the crusts off their bread.”
Brimming with ideas for healthy eating at affordable prices while reducing food waste, she has initiated a number of other street level efforts including:
- a partnership with the city’s Healthy Cleveland program to get more fruits and vegetables to residents by offering Perfectly Imperfect produce at community centers.
- a supply connection with corner stores around Cleveland that want to carry healthier foods, in collaboration with the Prevention Research Center for Healthy Neighborhoods at Case Western Reserve University. “A lot of (corner stores) are going to grocery stores and buying produce and reselling it. They’re not making any money on it,” she says.
- outreach to University Hospitals about setting up an information table in the lobby of the main hospital, and perhaps at satellite clinics, to get out word on the ugly produce option.
- the "Seed to Spoon" program, in which she vists schools to educate children about the long journey their food takes to get to the table and why it’s important not to waste it.
“We want to bridge the gap between all the food waste that exists in our country and to help the community around us,” says Weingart. “We feel like we have the obligation and the opportunity to help.”