"People have been struggling for several decades to bring their food system under local control," said Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of the Food-Justice organization Food First. "There is no indication (the movement of the ugly products) to do that." Holt-Giménez wonders if it would even be possible to run an ugly product company with ethical standards that would benefit the greater good. "They must grow as startups. They cannot change that," he says. "They cannot think of a shared, more cooperative, more collective business model with communities."
Misfits Market seems at least the intention to do things the right way. Abhi Ramesh, the company's founder and CEO, says his company does not work with Big Ag and instead focuses on local, organic producers for procurement. Misfits gives them access to a network that they can use, not only to sell more products, but also to reach consumers who otherwise might not have access to their food. According to a 2009 report from the US Department of Agriculture, more than 20 million Americans live in food deserts, meaning they don't have meaningful access to affordable, high-quality, fresh food; inequality affects disproportionately black and latino populations. "The reasons why those people don't have access today are because it's not profitable to serve them," says Ramesh. "So our big challenge from a business perspective is how we find a way to serve them in an economically viable way."
Critics often reject such sentiments as cunning, good marketing. Most companies with ugly products only deliver for selecting zip codes in large urban areas, which is another barrier for historically disadvantaged groups. "It is believed that people who ultimately buy these boxes are richer people who want to feel good about saving the environment," Ramesh admits. But he says the majority of his company's customers don't fit into that stereotype, especially since it serves every zip code in the states in which it operates. "They are older, have a steady income," Ramesh says about Misfit customers. "They may not be on food stamps, but they end up in a socio-economic bucket where they need access to affordable products." Ramesh says the company is also investigating ways to accept federal products SNAP benefits that help Americans with the lowest incomes to pay for fresh food. (Misfits Market does not release public sales data, including consumer demographics.)
Some advocates of food justice encourage startups with ugly products to go even further. In December, Phat Beets Produce, an organization based in Oakland that provides affordable community-supported products, issued a petition with a set of requirements for an ugly product competitor, Imperfect Produce. Phat Beets, who has not responded to a request for comment, wants the company and those who like it to offer personal payment and collection options to serve people without access to banking services, coordinate free deliveries to food justice organizations and food banks, and limit growers' partnerships to those who meet the labor standards for farm workers. (Imperfect Produce notes that it has some programs for disadvantaged communities, including a free farmer's market in San Francisco's Bayview neighborhood.)