How long do you spend in front of a display of apples or tomatoes or berries searching for the items for client meals that are just the right size, are unblemished, and with the coloring you consider the right stage of ripeness? In other words, seeking perfection…

Yeah, we all do it. But what you may not know is that all that produce already has to conform to grocery store sizes and qualities. The produce that doesn’t make the cosmetic grade tends to get tossed. Yeah, we’re talking about quirky shaped carrots and oblong yellow onions or really small avocados. According to UNESCO and the Environmental Working Group, 1 in 5 of these fruits and vegetables don’t meet cosmetic standards and go to waste. All of them food we could eat and enjoy.

Now you might find ugly produce at your local farmers market–and you should buy them since there’s nothing wrong with the quality. But here’s another option for your “no-waste” tool belt: Buying from a San Francisco-based food subscription company called Imperfect Produce.


Imperfect Produce was founded in 2015 by Ben Simon and Ben Chesler. Simon had originally founded the Food Recovery Network as a student at the University of Maryland after noticing food going to waste in the cafeteria. The FRN has since expanded to more than 180 colleges and universities across the country. Simon and Chesler decided to scale the concept nationally and to source “ugly” produce directly from farms. They would then deliver it directly to consumers’ homes at a discount. They claim their pricing is about 30 percent less than grocery store prices.

The produce arrives in a recyclable cardboard box–and nothing else–to limit waste. Like a CSA, you can choose from a small, medium, large, or extra-large shipment, organic, all fruit, all veggies, or mixed, with costs ranging from $11 to $13 weekly or bi-weekly for a small (7- to 9-pound) box of conventional produce to $39 to $43 for an extra-large (23- to 25-pound) box of organic produce. And you can customize your order. A few days before your delivery is scheduled to arrive you’ll be notified that you can log in and select from 30 to 40 items what you want–you know, so you won’t waste either. So if you hate beets or want all fruit, you can skip the beets and order citrus or whatever else is available. The site has tips for how to get the most from customizing–for instance, stocking up on items with a long shelf-life and multiple uses, like onions, potatoes, and hard squash that can be used in soups.


Imperfect Produce has already launched in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County, Portland, OR, Seattle/Tacoma, Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, San Antonio, and most recently San Diego, where I just experienced it. And in keeping with its mission, any produce that doesn’t go to customers goes to a food bank or other nonprofit. According to the company, it has recovered 30 million pounds since its launch.

While Imperfect Produce tries to source locally, the options vary by the day and week, depending on the seasons and weather. Their company philosophy is “follow the waste” and, they note, since more than 80 percent of the U.S.’s produce is grown in California, this is where they source most of their fruits and vegetables. But, they also source from out of state and Mexico when it’s necessary and seasonally appropriate.

“Our primary focus is reducing waste. Food waste has no borders,” their website notes. “Waste is a problem worldwide, and we do what we can to reduce waste wherever and however we can. In the winter, this means sourcing from Mexico and beyond.”

I got a sample box that contained four Roma tomatoes, a very small head of green cauliflower, a grapefruit, several apples, a couple of small oblong yellow onions, three small avocados, a bunch of carrots, and several small red potatoes. All look very appetizing. I’ve been enjoying the carrots (as has my dog Ketzel, who scarfed one from the counter), the potatoes, and the tomatoes so far.

For those who say, “Keep it local,” I’m with you. First choice is to buy local and from farmers. But I consider Imperfect Produce to be a great tool for those who can’t get to a farmers market or those who live in a climate with limited growing seasons.

How do you buy produce? What do you do to contain waste?

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I’m often asked if the produce we buy always has to be organic. Let’s face it, organic usually costs more than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables and we don’t all have a budget that can manage strictly organic.

A few years ago I interviewed Urvashi Rangan, project director of Consumer Reports’ Greenerchoices.org. The environmental health scientist believes that it’s a matter of prioritizing. This terrific site is an invaluable resource filled with interesting articles on food products related to health, safety, and other food-related news.

Rangan pointed out that berries, for instance, tend to have very high levels of pesticides. “So organic can get you a lot of value,” she said. “On the other hand if you’re weighing the difference between buying conventional or organic avocados, the thick skin and the fact that avocados may not require as many pesticides to produce means there’s not as great a health value in buying organic.”

She also noted that parents with young children should be aware that organic food in their children’s diet can make a significant different in lowering the amount of pesticide residue they consume. “They’re neurotoxins and when they build up in the body, even at low levels, for a child’s developing brain and neurosystem, reducing the amount of these agents is a much healthier way to go.”

All this, of course, gets back to the main issue. What fruits and vegetables pose the most challenges where pesticides are concerned and which ones are less problematic?

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There are two websites consumers should pay attention to. The first is a list put out by the Environmental Working Group. This list ranks  fruits and vegetables based on pesticide residue data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. The lower the number, the more pesticides. So, you have apples, celery, strawberry, peaches, and spinach in the top five. Asparagus, avocado, pineapples, sweet corn, and onions are at the bottom–meaning they have the fewest amount of pesticides. Less than one percent of sampled onions, for instance, were found to have any pesticide residue.

The EWG’s executive summary is the most direct, with a list of what to buy organic and what is lowest in pesticides. For a quick reference, this is quite useful. The group also has a mobile app for iOS and Android called Healthy Living.

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Another group doing some fascinating work in this arena is the Pesticide Action Network. Here you’ll learn that 888 million pounds of pesticides are applied annually in the U.S., averaging three pounds per person. So, what’s on your food? Go to the site and select a product and click. A page will open listing how many pesticide residues are found on that product, what they are and the toxicity risks to humans and the environment. So, click on green beans, for instance, and you’ll find it has 44 pesticide residues–chemical names that are pretty unpronounceable. Some, like carbendazim, are suspected hormone disrupters. Others like diazinon, hit that along with bee toxins, developmental or reproductive toxins, and neurotoxins.

“We have found that folks are grateful to see which pesticides are linked to particular health threats–so the brain, DNA, child, and bee icons have been helpful points of orientation/interpretation,” explained Heather Pilatic, PAN’s spokeswoman. “In sum, pesticides are enormously variable in their toxicity. That’s why we cross-referenced the residue data with toxicological info fromwww.pesticideinfo.org.”

PAN also has a What’s on My Food iOS app.

Altogether, these are a good start for personal chefs who are trying to serve purer food and want to better identify how what they buy will impact their clients’ bodies.

How concerned are you and your clients about whether their food is organic? Have you had to make decisions based on cost as to whether or not to buy organic ingredients?

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When I interviewed Katie Enterline and Mary Stewart of The Grateful Table for a post in May, I learned that Katie, with a Master’s Degree in Agriculture, Food and Environmental Science and Policy from Tufts University, has spent years engaged in building healthier food systems and making connections between food, people, and environmental health. So, when Candy and I discussed doing a blog post that addressed how personal chefs can bring more local and sustainable ingredients to their clients, Katie was the one I turned to for expertise. And, she readily agreed to help out. Here’s her take on why and how personal chefs can be the go-to resource for a better way to eat.

Photo by Connie Bowman

Photo by Connie Bowman

How to Get More Local and Sustainable Ingredients Into Client Meals
By Katie Enterline

As more people are starting to think about and care about where their food is coming from and looking for healthier, more sustainable food options, we as personal chefs have a unique opportunity to support our client’s desire in this area. Oftentimes, more sustainable ingredients are higher quality as well, allowing you to prepare the freshest seasonal meals for your clients. Whether this is already something of importance to you or you are looking to give your business a competitive edge, there are many ways you can start providing these options to clients.

Coming from the sustainable agriculture and food systems sector prior to launching The Grateful Table, purchasing sustainably produced and local products was very important to me and something I knew I wanted to incorporate into our business model. Eating sustainably produced whole foods is an investment in our health and the health of our planet. When we purchase local ingredients, we invest in our local farmers and the local economy and help to preserve family farms. We believe it is important to be mindful of the effects our food system has on the environment, public health, communities, and animal welfare and it is our mission to purchase organic and local products whenever possible.

Focusing on sustainable and local ingredients is a defining characteristic of our business model, which has at times been a deciding factor in why some clients choose us, and gives us a competitive edge while serving an ever-growing need.

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At the same time, while it is a priority for us, it may not be one for our clients initially, but becomes an opportunity for us to help encourage and educate them on how to source and incorporate more healthy sustainable products that they might otherwise not do on their own. When it is not our client’s priority, we will work with them to stay within their budget and still try to purchase local and organic whenever we can.

Some ways we do this is to avoid purchasing fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues organically as indicated on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen List. Additionally, we cost compare organic options vs. non-organic, which can sometimes be the same price or lower, and buy organic nuts, grains and beans in bulk sections by only purchasing the amount needed for a cook date. In addition, we can focus on either organic/local produce, or meat and seafood, whichever is most important to our client.

In the Washington, D.C. area, we have a few small- to mid-sized natural foods grocery chains that carry all or mostly organic produce and products with a large focus on local produce during the height of the growing season. We try to search for farms stands open daily in the summer close to our clients’ homes before heading to larger stores. We have also noticed many of the larger chain grocery stores increasing their organic offerings and at times local produce as well.

Additionally, through CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) and farm-to-home delivery businesses, we have found new creative ways to bring local products directly to our clients. Recognizing the growing movement toward local and organic, grocery delivery businesses such as Hometown Harvest are helping local farmers bring their vegetables, dairy, meats, and other grocery staples to consumers in our area. We can order their products online to be delivered directly to our clients’ homes the day of or day before our cook date.

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Incorporating our clients CSA share into their menu planning has also been successful for us. This has worked very well with clients who like to support local farmers and they particularly love when we create something from vegetables that are unusual and they would have no idea what to do with, such as Pickled Japanese Turnips.

The demand for healthier, more sustainably produced foods is only going to continue to grow. Personal chefs can take advantage of this and make sure to offer these products to their clients. As demand continues to increase, there will also be many more ways to provide these products to our clients.

Are you helping your clients eat meals using more local, sustainable ingredients? If not, why not? And, if so, what are your strategies?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

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