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Eat fugly food, save the world: Flashfood launches in Detroit

A Canadian startup has big plans to save the environment and combat hunger, starting with the Motor City.

You know when you’re checking out some buzzy new app, only to get the “Sorry, not yet available in your area” message? Not this time. Canadian food delivery startup Flashfood kicked off its U.S. expansion by launching in Detroit, and Detroit only. Sorry, SF and NYC.

It might seem like we’re at capacity for food delivery sites: Blue Apron and countless other meal delivery services, grocery delivery from Meijer and Whole Foods, and the ever-tempting takeout menus on Seamless. But Flashfood’s meal boxes look a little different: they contain more than a dozen pounds of misshapen vegetables and surplus protein.

OUT OF THE LANDFILL…

Founder Josh Domingues started the company to tackle the massive problem of food waste. A full half of the U.S. food supply ends up in landfills, where it decomposes and releases methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. Domingues wants to help eliminate trashed food by saving produce that never makes it to grocery stores — not because the food went bad, but because they aren’t aesthetically pleasing enough for the standard shopper. They’re called “ugly” fruits and veggies — you know, carrots as hefty as your forearm, or a yam with an eerie resemblance to a human skull.

“Nobody likes that the environment is being as harmed as it has been, but what’s challenging is people don’t typically want to go out of their way to make a change in their daily life,” Domingues said, adding that Flashfood’s convenience makes a more ethical food choice easier. They’ve diverted 25,000 pounds of food from landfills so far, Domingues says.

“We’ve given consumers the ability to use their capital and buying power in a conscious way that’s going to legitimately make a difference for the environment,” he said.

…AND INTO HUNGRY FAMILIES’ FRIDGES

The company sources produce from farmers in Ontario. Protein comes from Tyson Foods. Eastern Market’s Michigan Farm to Freezer packages the boxes, and they’re delivered by a third-party service. Forgotten Harvest, a local leader of redirecting food waste to needy families, is another partner. For each pound of food sold in Detroit, Flashfood donates a pound of protein to the nonprofit, a difficult item to source for their food banks. Individuals can also purchase donation boxes.

A family in Metro Detroit can order a flashfood box for $35.99, which will arrive on their doorstep on the following Thursday. The latest box includes potatoes, beets, chicken burgers and more.

“What we’ve seen is that the expectation of the product that’s in the box initially is like, ‘Well, maybe this is second-hand stuff, I don’t know about quality,’” Domingues said. “But when people get their first box, they’re blown away. … Because we’re sourcing directly from the farmers and the growers, we’re actually getting food to people that’s at a fresher state” than the veggies on grocery store shelves.

So far, local buyers have typically been young couples and families in the suburbs. Flashfood has a few thousand customers in Canada, and is looking to double their local customer base for each of the three months of their trial run in Detroit to prove their viability. Domingues said they’re on track after their first few weeks. If things go well, they’re looking at expanding to more cities by the end of the year. Further down the road, Domingues envisions opening their U.S. headquarters in Detroit, and offering more options, like personalized boxes and healthy surplus snacks.

OBSTACLES ON THE GROUND

Another long-term plan is to make the Flashfood boxes eligible for food stamp dollars. But while the produce is discounted — and way cheaper than other meal kit boxes, at under $3 per meal, compared to more than $10 — they still might be too pricey for those families. Nearly 60 percent of Detroit households are enrolled in or eligible for the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and benefits under Michigan’s food assistance program average out to just $4 a day per person. Services like Foodflash might work well for budget-conscious families above the poverty line, but might not do much for the staggering 48 percent of Detroit households that are food insecure.

Domingues said they are still working on doing more grassroots outreach in the city. While they have a few local partners, they haven’t yet established relationships with the robust network of food entrepreneurs and farmers around Detroit.

They also aren’t the only ugly food delivery startup in the mix. Baltimore-based Hungry Harvest launched service in the metro area last month (though a couple city-based zip codes still show as not available). Imperfect Produce, while not yet available in Detroit, offers a similar service with more customization.

In a broader sense, one of the most encouraging things about Flashfood’s move to Detroit is why they picked the city in the first place. Domingues cited an early connection to Detroit, crossing the river yearly for hockey tournaments, and name-checked the draw of Detroit’s comeback. But it was mostly a business decision, due to proximity to Canadian growers, lack of market saturation and potential customer base. If Detroit proves that Flashfood’s concept works in the U.S., maybe Flashfood’s example will prove to other startups that Detroit is a market they shouldn’t pass over. –Kate Abbey-Lambertz

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