A new ugly produce company might start popping up in Frederick as it expands into the Maryland area.
Misfits Market uses a model of selling misshapen or ugly produce to address food insecurity and is set to expand from the Philadelphia area into the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region.
Ugly produce is described as fruit and vegetables that are not considered wholesale or market worthy. They might be the wrong shape or have bruises on them, but their quality is fine, said CEO and founder Abhi Ramesh. In a box, buyers might receive peas, mangoes, pineapple, kale, rainbow chard and dandelion greens. Each box comes with recipes for the items, and Misfits Market runs a blog that contains other recipes.
Many of the ugly produce companies tout that their models also cut down on food waste.
Misfits Market sells “ugly” produce in one-time, weekly or biweekly boxes. The company plans to deliver boxes to every ZIP code with the idea of bringing relatively affordable organic produce to people even if they do not live in major cities.
It is the only ugly produce company that will deliver to every ZIP code, Ramesh said.
The company sells Mischief boxes, a smaller box that feeds one to two people, for $19 plus an additional $4.50 for shipping and a Madness box, which serves four to five people, for $34 plus shipping fees.
Produce box companies and food deserts
The goal with Misfits Market is to help address food deserts, Ramesh said, by providing fresh produce to areas that do not have good access to grocery stores or farmers markets.
“This is core, core, core to our model,” Ramesh said.
There are food deserts across Frederick County. Hood College’s Frederick Food Security Network mapped out the deserts in the city of Frederick alone. Places such as Emmitsburg and Brunswick may also be considered deserts because of the distance between grocery stores and homes.
One reason the county has food deserts is lack of public transportation, said Connie Ray, program manager of the Frederick Food Security Network.
“So it’s always a good thing to have more options for people, especially in those areas, to be able to access that produce so that they can at least have that option of buying it without too much hassle of transporting themselves to be able to get it,” Ray said.
Food deserts does not mean lack of access to food but the difficulty in getting good food. Many food deserts have fast-food outlets and convenience stores but few grocery stores.
Companies such as Misfits Market or Hungry Harvest can play a role in delivering produce to people, Ray said, but they do not take SNAP, which some people in food deserts rely on, Ray said.
These companies can be controversial, even though they try to help provide access to produce, she said.
“On one hand, yes, I think having access is always a good thing,” Ray said. “On the other hand, there’s some that are saying that produce would have otherwise been donated to food pantries and getting to people that way for free, which isn’t great for the farmer necessarily, but doesn’t necessarily mean that [the food] wouldn’t have been available to those communities anyway. So I think it’s kind of a complicated issue, but in terms of access, yes, it is a positive thing.”
Baltimore-based Hungry Harvest works with the Frederick Food Council to deliver steeply discounted produce on Wednesdays at the YMCA in Frederick because it cannot take SNAP, said CEO Evan Lutz.
Hungry Harvest representatives do not consider the company an ugly produce company, and it does not sell only vegetables and fruit. The company buys food from wholesalers and, in some cases, local farmers. Lutz said in an email that the company has worked with Big White Barn Produce and Flowers Farm before.
Some of the produce they sell might be considered ugly, Lutz said, but others come from farmer or wholesale surplus, or from produce that is too big or small for the market.
The company has been in the area for five years, building up a loyal customer base. Lutz said he was not concerned about potential competition from Misfits Market.
The discount days on Wednesday, where people can pay with SNAP benefits, has been successful, said JoAnn Coates-Hunter, director of the Frederick Food Council. The last time she went to the YMCA for the market, there was hardly anything left, she said.
Coates-Hunter will take anything that remains to the Frederick food bank.
Working with local farmers
Ugly produce companies have the potential to help local farmers, Coates-Hunter said. Often, farmers will donate the goods they do not sell or use them to feed livestock, but farmers do need to be paid for their food.
“The best way that they can help the farmers is by buying their produce,” she said. “And then the people in the county benefit because they’re eating stuff that’s fresher, local and the local economy benefits as well.”
Both Lutz and Ramesh said they want to work with local farmers, but they do source outside of their selling area. Lutz works with wholesalers, while Ramesh will buy from farmers across the United States.
Any farmer interested in working with Misfits Market can email the company (firstname.lastname@example.org), Ramesh said.
Working with farmers can provide them another revenue stream, said Janice Wiles, director of Community Food Advocacy Research Education (FARE).
“All farmers have ugly produce that’s not suitable for the grocery store shelf or even for the farmer’s market, so that’s tremendous help,” Wiles said. “Now how easy it is to package and distribute and get to the place, if it’s not very much or how simple it is is really up to the buyer.”
On average, Wiles said that she’ll have about 5 percent of produce that is not good for the market, although that varies wildly with the crop and weather. But companies such as Misfits Market and Hungry Harvest are teaching people that ugly produce is fine to eat, which is a good thing, she said.
“It’s good food that can go to people who might not have as much money to buy good food,” she said. “Even though it doesn’t look good, it can be cut up and it looks just the same. If it’s going to go into a stew, it’s going to look the same as the ones that are perfect. So it’s not like it’s a bad item to eat, it just might not look like what we’re used to seeing.”