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Shoppers turn to 'imperfect produce' as grocery prices rise

Under the gentle Ontario sunlight, cucumbers with character and parsley with quirks find a new purpose at Eat Impact's warehouse on the outskirts of Barrie. Anna Stegink, the founder of this online grocer, believes in giving these outcasts a chance to shine. The mission is simple: help people eat well, save money, and combat the growing problem of food waste.

In a world where grocery prices seem to defy gravity, consumers are embracing the charm of so-called "imperfect produce" to keep their budgets intact. Across southern Ontario, Eat Impact sorts and packs containers with rejected fruits and vegetables – the tentacled carrots, scarred bananas, and bulbous potatoes that didn't quite make the cut at mainstream retailers.

The heart of the issue lies in the stringent cosmetic standards imposed by the retail industry. Billions of pounds of perfectly edible Canadian produce go to waste each year because it doesn't meet the visual expectations of grocery store shelves. Whether it's in the fridge, landfill, or the farmer's field, the fate of these rejected gems is sealed.

Cucumbers, for instance, must adhere to strict length and width guidelines, requiring them to be straight, "moderately tapered," and of a "good characteristic green color" to be classified as first grade, as per federal agricultural regulations.

As grocery bills continue their uphill climb, with Canadian families expected to pay nearly $1,800 more for groceries this year compared to 2022, the need for affordable options becomes crucial. Stegink points out the challenge: "Prioritizing eating healthy and buying this fresh produce has become harder for many of us."

Eat Impact is not alone in this endeavor. Further west, Spud, another online grocer, rescued nearly 84,000 pounds of imperfect produce from the landfill last year, offering everything from chipped apples to odd-shaped oranges across various regions, including British Columbia and Alberta.

Emma McDonald, a manager at Spud, notes that subscribers can save up to 50% compared to traditional outlets. The added advantage is the fresher food delivered directly to doorsteps, bypassing the produce aisle. With about 90% of its inventory turning over within 48 hours, Spud caters to families and multi-person households looking to save time and prioritize organic, local produce.

Waste awareness, regional organic goods, and substantial savings make imperfect produce an attractive option, especially for younger demographics. McDonald highlights that some customers with physical impairments or those who relied on takeout now have the option to create healthy meals without hurting their wallets.

Other players in the imperfect produce game include Odd Bunch, which offers various produce boxes sourced from farms in southwestern Ontario, the Niagara region, and the Eastern Townships of Quebec. They also include surplus and "short-coded" items with incorrect best-before dates.

The challenge for these online grocers lies in educating consumers about the availability of discounted, high-quality groceries. Vicky Ffrench, from Cookstown Greens, emphasizes the importance of spreading the word and making consumers aware that there are alternatives to purchasing groceries at a discounted price.

The movement towards imperfect produce is not just about saving money; it's a step towards reducing food waste, promoting sustainability, and encouraging a diverse and inclusive approach to fresh and nutritious eating.