On the outskirts of Barrie, Ont., sunlight washes over the outcast cucumber and parsley stacked on skids at Eat Impact's warehouse.

Workers at the online grocer sort and pack containers with these rejects and misfits — tentacled carrots, scarred bananas, bulbous potatoes — for home deliveries across southern Ontario.

“The goal is helping people eat better, save money and fight food waste all at the same time,” said Anna Stegink, who founded Eat Impact in late 2022.

With prices soaring and budgets stretched, consumers are turning increasingly to so-called imperfect food to save on produce that a fresh crop of online grocers says is just as tasty — if a little gnarled.

Billions of pounds of Canadian produce go to waste every year, much of it because it fails to live up to the strict cosmetic criteria adhered to by the retail industry.

“It either rots in the fridge, the landfill or the farmer's field,” said Stegink.

Mainstream retailers sell primarily first-grade fruits and vegetables, leaving farmers and distributors stuck with heaps of fresh, perfectly edible but not quite photogenic produce.

Cucumbers, for example, must conform to tight length and width restrictions and be straight, only “moderately tapered” and of “good characteristic green colour” to achieve first grade classification, federal agricultural regulations state. 

Meanwhile, grocery bills keep climbing. Canadian families will pay nearly $1,800 more on average for groceries this year than they did in 2022, according to an annual report on the food industry by researchers at four Canadian universities. 

“Prioritizing eating healthy and buying this fresh produce has become harder for many of us,” Stegink said. “Our idea was to start Eat Impact to connect imperfect, ugly and surplus produce with people that are happy to eat it.”

She’s not alone.

Further west, online grocer Spud says it saved nearly 84,000 pounds of imperfect produce from the landfill last year by selling everything from chipped apples to odd-shaped oranges across British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast as well as the Calgary and Edmonton areas.

Subscribers save up to 50 per cent on their items compared to traditional brick-and-mortar outlets, said manager Emma McDonald. They have the added benefit of eating the fresher food made possible by direct-to-doorstep delivery that bypasses the produce aisle. About 90 per cent of its inventory turns over within 48 hours, she said.

Given the savings, waste awareness and bent toward regional organic goods, it’s no surprise that many subscribers skew younger.

“We’re serving families and multi-person households that are a bit busier, that are looking to save time or are prioritizing that organic, local aspect,” McDonald said, noting that Spud has offered imperfect produce for eight years — though business has ramped up recently.

“A lot of our customers are physically impaired and can’t get to the grocery store themselves. And some people who might rely on takeout now have this option to make healthy meals that aren’t hurting their wallets," she added.

McDonald herself likes the bananas for smoothies — 18 yellow ones for $5 in a recent deal — and local grower Fraserland Organics’ “Pugly” potatoes, which Spud sells in five-pound bags for $6.

Many produce delivery services have relationships with nearby producers. Vicky Ffrench, who runs Cookstown Greens — one of the 10 or so farms Eat Impact draws on directly — said online grocers have fostered greater awareness that it's just as easy to enjoy a parsnip or parsley root that may not have grown to full size, or a potato that might look like a heart.

Spreading the word further remains one of the biggest challenges — "just educating the consumer that there are options for them to purchase groceries at a discounted price," Ffrench said.

Odd Bunch, launched by 25-year-old Divy Ojha 18 months ago, offers seven different produce boxes up to once a week, gleaned from farms and greenhouses in southwestern Ontario, the Niagara region and the Eastern Townships of Quebec, though they also stock from Mexico and California, especially in winter.

The company recently launched in Ottawa, and serves most of the area between London, Ont. and Montreal.

It also offers foods that were produced in surplus as well as products that were "short-coded" — items packaged with an incorrect best-before date.

Toronto-resident Larissa Fitzsimons began buying Odd Bunch's fruit and veg two years ago before switching to Eat Impact, which she likes for the pick-and-choose flexibility of their drop-down menu for weekly boxes.

"I don't care if it's oddly shaped or whatever, it doesn't really impact me. If someone's willing to give that to you at a discount, that's great savings," Fitzsimons said.

The local source of many items meshes with her environmentalism, but she also relishes items from far afield.

"It gets you to try different things," she said, highlighting that she first sampled a persimmon thanks to the service. Now she's a regular buyer of the sweet fruit.

Most big-box grocers offer discounts on goods that are nearing their best-before date. But often the produce is "pretty far gone," Fitzsimmons said. "You're not really going to buy soft potatoes."

But knobby ones with a blemish or two?

"Oh yeah."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2024.