Ashley Weingart is planting a seed of her own.
In the middle of Forest City Weingart Produce Co.’s three-story refrigerated warehouse on Cleveland’s Orange Avenue and East 37th Street, Weingart is surrounded by crates and boxes filled with lemons, sweet potatoes, apples, pears and other abundance. This has been her life after marrying into the fourth generation of the produce company in 2002.
But about three years ago, she started to notice neighborhood mothers and children walking home with grocery bags filled with microwavable meals and junk food from the nearby corner and convenience stores. Weingart Produce was the only healthy option in the area, but it was a wholesaler and not open to the public.
“It’s no wonder that people who live in food deserts can’t change their eating habits,” says Weingart. “They don’t have the access.”
Yet, she was sitting on a bounty of excess produce that was tarnished by grocer’s standards but perfectly nutritious and tasty to eat: a misshapen potato, an eggplant with a scar, zucchinis with scratches or a green pepper with an orange spot.
“If you have a small idea for how you might affect change, you have a responsibility to do your part,” she says.
So in May 2016, the 38-year-old mother of three launched the budding sub-business, Perfectly Imperfect Produce, a weekly delivery program offering boxes of unattractive produce to residents in Cuyahoga County and its surrounding counties.
Weingart tries to reach those who live in the city’s food deserts through her website and by word of mouth. “It’s really just sort of connecting a few dots in terms of seeing one problem and looking at where you lie in the midst of that problem,” she explains.
Before launching Perfectly Imperfect, Weingart and her husband, Andy, donated about 100,000 pounds per year of blemished produce to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.
“We’ve tried to do everything we can to find a plate for them,” explains Weingart.
While they still donate a large amount, their small customer base is growing.
Early every week, the couple sifts through more than 1,000 pounds of produce and sets aside pieces considered imperfect. On Thursday mornings, they assemble an assortment of seasonal produce in small grab bags ($10), and 15-pound ($15) and 30-pound boxes ($25) for Friday delivery or customer pickup at the warehouse. Each box also comes with proper cutting instructions or a small recipe.
“We know that they might not have a lot of knowledge passed down to them about how to cook healthy meals,” she says. “So the recipes are our way of sharing what we know about healthy eating.”
Their personable additions have made a difference. “It’s a good touch,” says Cynthia Holton. She has been receiving boxes for about six months and finds the instructions helpful for unfamiliar produce or things she’s disliked previously.
“You get a whole new perspective on it and could end up liking it,” Holton adds.
For now, Perfectly Imperfect delivers about a dozen boxes a week to doorsteps with another dozen or so pickups from the warehouse. But the difference Weingart is making is significant. “It adds up to thousands of pounds of produce,” she says with a smile.
She hopes to grow by establishing partnerships with local grocers to have a Perfectly Imperfect section in their stores. “That would allow us to sell on a greater scale to reduce food waste more, which is really the ultimate goal,” she says.