By Fructibus [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

October 10, 2018; Eater

Few issues show the dichotomy between the “haves” and “have-nots” more clearly than food waste, an issue that, as NPQ noted a few months ago, is increasingly garnering both for-profit and nonprofit attention. While some can toss a bruised apple without a second thought, others struggle to gain access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Parties from both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors have indicated a commitment to eliminating food waste and alleviating hunger, but what does the sectoral mix mean in practice?

A recent blog post written by two San Francisco Bay Area nonprofits criticized and condemned the intentions of the venture-backed Imperfect Produce. As its name implies, Imperfect Produce buys ugly produce from farmers at a discounted price and sells them to its customers at rates well below grocery store prices. Since farmers would typically have to throw this produce away, the social good aspect of the company is that it purportedly reduces food waste and keeps farmers financially afloat.

The authors of the post, however, accuse Imperfect Produce of not only stealing their own market share—one author’s organization, Phat Beets, operates a community-supported agriculture subscription that has seen a decline in membership since Imperfect Produce burst onto the scene—but also of “commodifying food waste.” Others who have expressed criticism of Imperfect Produce and similar companies have indicated that these companies sell food that would otherwise get donated to food banks, thus making it even more difficult for those in food deserts to gain access to produce. Moreover, these companies do little to support small, local farmers. The largest producers of food waste are the huge industrial agricultural complexes. Imperfect Produce and their counterparts essentially give more money to fuel big agribusiness, which we know comes with a host of additional issues that harm the surrounding communities and environment.

Most importantly, while the business model achieves the elusive “double bottom line,” it does nothing to combat the systemic causes of food waste. It can even be argued that because Imperfect Produce and similar companies depend on food waste as inventory, they have little incentive to fight these systemic causes that lead not only to food waste, but also to food insecurity, food injustice, and environmental harm.

This is more than a petty distinction on a larger level as social enterprises increasingly proliferate. For profit companies in some realms of work traditionally nonprofit may create unintended consequences that actually exacerbate the very issues they purport to solve. We saw this lately with Debby Warren’s article, “A Tangled Web: Charlotte’s Tale of Two Cities and Corporate Philanthropy.”

Jennifer Amanda Jones describes the pitfalls of cause marketing in “Save the World in 2014: Don’t Go Shopping.” She aptly says, “If we want to live in a world where all children have access to shoes, we must recognize that giving away shoes will not get us closer to that goal. Instead, we must understand systemic causes to poverty and we must commit philanthropic dollars to long-term solutions.”

But it’s not so black and white. Imperfect Produce, with its glitzy marketing campaigns, has shed light onto the problem of food waste in ways that the nonprofit sector could not. That benefit cannot be ignored. It’s because of this awareness that food waste has become the “cause du jour” of celebrity chefs. The James Beard Foundation has even decided to use its platform to take on food waste with its new cookbook, Waste Not, and the social media campaign “Waste Not Wednesdays.” Again, however, the focus seems to be on the acute rather than systemic causes.

Hopefully, the James Beard Foundation will also leverage its influence to raise awareness about the upstream forces that result in millions of pounds of food waste each year. As an influencer, the Foundation has the ability to change our culture surrounding food such that farmers, large and small, are rewarded for cutting down on waste, for helping the environment instead of hurting it.

With so many players in the game and so much money at stake, tackling food waste is without a doubt a complex issue. What is clear, however, is that venture capitalists who want returns on their investments do not make solving the issue any easier.—Sheela Nimishakavi