A “peculiar” produce delivery service launched by two university students in 2021 is tackling food waste in Vancouver.
Food waste is a complex problem. It significantly accelerates the climate crisis, contributing to approximately 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions every year.
To address this issue, Sang Le and Arielle Lok decided to help reduce food waste on a larger scale. Le, a University of British Columbia Class of 2022 student who studies marketing and business analytics, first became aware of the quantity of household food waste produced from cooking as a college student. She began working on a passion project to reduce food waste, and in December 2020, she met Lok, a McGill University Class of 2023 student who studies finance and shares a common interest in social entrepreneurship.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2021, with Le’s background as an operator in food tech and Lok’s background in venture capital for the consumer goods industry, the two students launched Peko Produce, a “peculiar” produce delivery service in Vancouver that reduces food waste and promotes the accessibility of affordable, healthy food. Their vision is “to build the future of sustainable and socially conscious grocery.”
“Growing up in an Asian household means that our families have always been very frugal with food because they grew up in poverty and understand the labor behind a simple meal,” Le tells NextShark. “During wartime, most Vietnamese – including my grandparents – waited for hours just to get a very little amount of basic commodities using government coupons. Food was scarce, and our families learned to appreciate it early on.”
Le attributes their strong passions for agriculture and entrepreneurship to two influences: their family working in agriculture and the maternal figures in their lives who raised them with street stall food. “As a result,” Le says, “our identities as Asian women definitely translate to our work – we have a close relationship with food, believe that we should do everything with care and definitely bring a ‘mama bear’ approach to our leadership at Peko.”
Despite their own experiences with food insecurity, Le and Lok’s family members could not understand Peko’s mission fully. Le mentions that in the beginning, they “were very confused about why their daughters went to university to sell ‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables.”
To start Peko, Le and Lok went around the Greater Vancouver Area, pitching their produce delivery service to every farm and distributor. Despite the support and positive reception they received, there were still several ups and downs. “Supply was very unpredictable, especially as a small business,” Le shares. “So we were 70% short on our first-ever launch where we received 100 orders over 2 days, did not do quality control well, and received horrible customer feedback (rightfully so). It’s gotten A LOT better since though!”
While working office jobs, Le and Lok searched for a cold produce warehouse or commissary kitchen so they could make a space where they could pack their mystery produce boxes. Some of these locations placed them on multiple year-long waitlists or turned them down due to a lack of space. Operations eventually began thanks to weekend rentals at a coworking space, and since Le and Lok could not drive at the time, their friends delivered everything.
In mid-November 2021, flooding due to the historic atmospheric river event in British Columbia significantly disrupted the area’s supply chain, emptying out grocery stores. During the same week, Le went to the ER for a landslide accident. Because of this, Peko diverted over 12,000 pounds of produce, filled up community fridges and donated to aid communities.
Food waste contributes significantly to pollution – 40% of food produced globally is lost or wasted. In Canada specifically, 58% of all food produced is wasted or lost every year, and $31 billion worth of produce is rejected every year because it does not meet Canada’s cosmetic standards. To address these issues, Peko saves produce from stops along the supply chain, such as farms, distribution centers and retail outlets, to prevent it from being thrown out for looking “peculiar,” for approaching the end of its shelf life or for becoming part of surpluses. Unlike other market solutions that tackle certain parts of the supply chain, Peko sources from domestic and international imports as well as organic and conventional produce to reduce as much food waste as possible.
Peko offers a mystery box for 25 Canadian dollars that contain around 10 to 12 pounds of “peculiar” and surplus produce, both conventional and organic, as well as around nine to 10 varieties of “imperfect” local and exotic fruits and vegetables for up to 40% off grocery prices.
After a few months of watching Peko grow, Le and Lok’s families became more supportive of its cause. In its first year of operation, Peko generated over six figures in sales, divested over 150,000 pounds of produce and saved customers approximately $450,000 in grocery bills.
Since not everyone has access to Peko and similar food delivery services, Le suggests starting where you are: “Put in a little more work – whether that be meal planning, freezing/pickling things, regrowing your food, or chopping off damaged parts of the produce and support[ing] your local food system – this is one of the best ways to support the growers of your food and reduce your environmental impact.”
Reducing individuals’ food waste matters, but it is more impactful to challenge large-scale food systems to reduce their food waste. Lee suggests that we “hold governments and businesses (especially big corporations) accountable to build sustainable practices and reduce wastage – vote with your dollars, we don’t have much time left!”
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