Let’s Talk About Pizza, Broccoli Leaves, and Bottom Lines

Venture capitalists just made a $16.5 million bet on a start-up that wants to sell people ugly, misshapen vegetables. What’s going on?

June 14, 2019

Eugene Kim via Flickr

Have you ever seen a broccoli leaf?

I’m not talking about those cute little vestigial leaves that protrude from the cruciferous staple in your grocer’s vegetable aisle—the ones that you, if you’re like most people, habitually trim off during meal preparation. I mean the humongous, magnificently veined leaves that grow from the ground alongside the flowered stalk. Broccoli leaves, in case you didn’t know, are actually quite tasty when sautéed with some rosemary, scallions, and garlic. They’re also high in vitamin A, iron, calcium, and a host of other nutrients.

Another interesting fact about broccoli leaves: Pretty much nobody eats them.

When broccoli gets harvested, the plant’s leaves typically get chopped off and left on the ground to rot as compost. That’s what upstate New York farmers kept telling entrepreneur Jessica Smith whenever she asked them to name a particular vegetable—or part thereof—that they felt is being unjustly wasted as a result of low marketability. Broccoli leaves are right up there, they said, with “suntanned” peppers: bell peppers that don’t perform well in the supermarket because they’re irregularly colored, as opposed to a uniform shade of green, red, orange, or yellow.

Both of these vegetables sounded absolutely perfect for Smith. She and her business partner were in the initial stages of launching Scraps, a frozen-pizza company that aims to address the issue of food waste by incorporating overlooked, unaesthetic, or otherwise unloved produce into its recipes as star ingredients. Now six months old, the Brooklyn-based start-up makes about 200 artisanal pizzas each week, distributing the pies to around a dozen shops in the New York City area. For about $12 each, you can take your pick between the green pizza, marked by a tangy, garlicky broccoli-leaf pesto, and the red one, topped with a generous sprinkling of beautifully mis-colored peppers.

Beautifulcataya via Flickr

Please forgive the following food waste catechism, which you may be familiar with if you tend to read columns like this one but which nevertheless merits repeating in any article about the U.S. food system. As much as 40 percent of the food we produce in this country never gets eaten. Food waste costs the average American family of four $1,800 a year. And if global wasted food were a country unto itself, it would have the third-highest carbon footprint in the world, just behind the United States and China.

Facts like these are what prompted Smith and her partner, Jane Katz, to create a product that tastes good, looks appealing, and incorporates oft-wasted ingredients in such a way that the product could itself become “a talking point,” in Smith’s words. “We thought: Could we package a pizza so that we got people talking about something like broccoli leaves and why we aren’t eating them? Could we actually get people to start eating them more?”

The issue has also inspired another new start-up, the “ugly produce” subscription-box service Misfits Market. The company made business headlines earlier this week by raising $16.5 million in venture capital toward its stated goal of breaking the food waste cycle by delivering weekly boxes of misshapen and malformed produce directly to customers at a steep discount. Its produce costs up to 50 percent less than what prettier versions would go for in grocery stores. Since its launch last September, the company has grown beyond its original customer base of Philadelphia and New Jersey and now ships to thousands of households in 11 states. It plans to use some of its Series A windfall to extend its operations along the entire East Coast by the end of the year, sourcing its bounty from local farmers in each new market to make prices, delivery times, and emissions-related carbon footprints as low as possible.

Prizmatic via Flickr

Still in their infancy, both Scraps and Misfits Market join an ever-expanding list of new companies that aim to tackle food waste by rebranding uneaten food as something other than trash, which is how it’s been (mis)characterized for entirely too long. The budding industry has its skeptics, who point out that some companies procure their produce from food giants like Dole instead of small farmers, or that these start-ups could divert fruits and vegetables from food banks. Smith knows that selling 200 of her pizzas a week won’t make a dent in the country’s systemically inefficient and unjust food and agricultural practices. But she believes that the mere presence of a frozen pizza like hers on store shelves can help move the needle, if only by raising awareness among consumers and getting them to think differently about flaws in our food system and what the solutions might be.

While she and her partner are certainly hoping to scale up their business into something much larger—they recently met with Whole Foods executives who wolfed down slices of Scraps’ pizza and declared them delicious—Smith says that one of the most important things these start-ups can do right now is “shift people’s perspectives.”

Toward that end, Smith says, she welcomes competition in what’s already getting to be a semi-crowded field. “The more people that are in this space, the less education that has to take place among consumers. The ultimate goal is that no produce is being discarded for physical imperfections or blemishes—that people are just eating it.”

Up to 40 percent of the food in the United States is never eaten.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Lynn Friedman
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