Ugly. Imperfect. Not suitable for sale. Those commonly describe 20 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables trashed or unused by supermarkets. And with that, over 40 million Americans remain food insecure and lack access to healthy, fresh, and nutritious food. It might result from a lack of budget, transportation, or time. Either way, Americans (and North Carolinians) are losing out on quality food because we, as a society, are throwing it away.
Courtney Bell of Ungraded Produce
And that’s what innovator Courtney Bell is fighting against, with her Hillsborough-based company Ungraded Produce. How? By providing saving and packaging unwanted produce and delivering it to hundreds of customers in North Carolina. Farmers get paid for their viable products and North Carolinians receive access to quality food. Let’s see what she has to say about this awesome venture.
Christina Riley: What brought you to North Carolina and what inspired you to start Ungraded Produce?
Courtney Bell: I’m originally from Rockville, Maryland but attended undergrad at Duke between 2013-2017. While studying environmental science with a focus on food sustainability there, I learned a lot about the severity of food waste. Food insecurity in our system was another area I focused on. I wanted to find a way to mitigate these issues. After meeting with a few farmers in the Durham area, I realized there was a business opportunity. By rescuing available ugly produce, we could divert it to consumers at a discount. This discovery motivated me to start Ungraded Produce. I launched a trial period by my senior fall semester, and have been running it full time since graduating in May 2017.
The Ungraded Produce Process
CR: Can you set the scene? What does it look like to save ugly produce?
CB: To set the stage, Americans waste an estimated 42 percent of fruits and vegetables grown here. Oftentimes it’s just for being in excess or “ugly.” That means it is atypically sized, shaped, or colored, but has no quality issues. Approximately 20 percent of this waste occurs at the farm level. In many cases, farmers train their employees to leave ugly produce in the field. This is because ugly produce does not meet the cosmetic requirements for commercial sale and would get rejected at the supermarket. Thus, farmers cannot justify the costs associated with harvesting this unmarketable product. This ugly produce rarely gets donated to food banks, because farmers aren’t picking it in the first place.
CR: Is this the only place where produce gets wasted?
CB: Losses also occur in the post-harvest stage. Much of the produce picked for commercial sale is sent to facilities called packing houses before it goes to supermarkets. At these facilities, produce gets further inspected, and a significant amount gets culled from production lines due to cosmetic imperfections. This produce almost exclusively ends up in dumpsters, where it gets sent to landfills to rot and emit greenhouse gases. I’ve seen it with my own eyes!
Reducing Food Waste
CR: So what would you say is your most important objective?
CB: At Ungraded Produce, our number one goal is to reduce food waste. We do that by sourcing high-quality yet ugly or excess produce. There are many challenges to sourcing and distributing ugly produce at scale. Most large farms aren’t picking ugly produce in the first place. Because of that, companies like ours have to offer growers serious incentives (both in terms of order volume and fair prices) to consider retraining their employees to pick this less marketable produce. Additionally, there can be a fine line between a cosmetic and quality issue. That makes ordering enough product a challenge when quality is always up in the air.
CB: Additionally, we want to meet consumer demand for local and organic food. However, given that food waste occurs at all stages of the supply chain, we feel that we’re able to make the biggest impact by working with as many suppliers as possible that have a source of “at risk” produce. This means we don’t discriminate based on where the produce was grown, whether it is conventional, organic, or anything like that. We love to work with local farmers and try to source as much local produce as possible, but we also don’t want to lose sight of our mission to fight food waste by ignoring opportunities to recover non-local ugly produce!
A More Sustainable Food System
CB: A lot of the focus from the media right now is on ugly produce that goes to waste right on the farm. Aside from that, many don’t realize that a significant portion of this produce is wasted in the aforementioned packing facilities. Most of the produce that enters these facilities was grown in other parts of the country or world. But because it is getting rejected in North Carolina packing facilities, it ends up rotting in North Carolina landfills. Working with these intermediate suppliers is very important, but it’s a lesser known part of rescuing ugly produce. We are committed to working towards a more sustainable and equitable North Carolina food system, and we’re lucky to be able to engage such as wide range of suppliers in the process.
CR: How many local farms are you currently working with?
CB: We have a strong network of roughly 15 medium-to-large North Carolina farms in our network. On the other hand, we also work with many intermediate produce suppliers as well.
CR: What does food insecurity look like in North Carolina and how can Ungraded Produce help change that?
CB: Currently, 20 percent of North Carolinian homes are classified as food insecure. That means that they lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Many food-insecure families live in areas called food deserts. Those are areas characterized by high concentrations of fast food chains, liquor stores, and bodegas. Food deserts also have little to no supermarkets that sell fresh, affordable foods. For that reason, fresh produce is particularly difficult for these families to access. That’s especially hard if they don’t have personal vehicles to drive to supermarkets in other neighborhoods. While fresh produce gets donated to food banks, there usually isn’t enough to go around and support healthy diets in these communities.
Making More Accessible Produce
CB: Another goal of ours is to make fresh produce more accessible to people of all backgrounds. Our convenient home delivery model removes the time and transportation constraints to accessing fresh food. Also, our products are priced 30 to 50 percent below supermarket alternatives. Additionally, we donate 2 to 5 pounds of fresh produce to our local food bank partners for every box sold. This year, we’ve already donated 54,000 pounds.
CB: We’re looking to take our hunger relief efforts one step further by becoming eligible to accept SNAP/WIC in 2019. As an online food retailer, we are currently unable to accept SNAP payment. However, we have identified a way to overcome this barrier. Luckily, we can partner with local churches and community centers to promote and distribute our products to community members of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Not only will the partnerships with these organizations help to build trust with prospective customers, but we’ll set up stands to distribute the boxes. Food insecure customers who are picking up their boxes can then pay in person. This, in turn, will allow us to accept SNAP payment.
Future Hopes and Expectations
CR: What are your hopes for NC farmers and consumers? What does the future look like for Ungraded Produce?
CB: We are working to improve the sustainability and equity of the North Carolina food system, one ugly veggie at a time. It will undoubtedly take a village, and we hope that North Carolina farmers and consumers will join us in our efforts to create positive system-wide change.
CB: First, we hope that North Carolina farmers and distributors will see the social and environmental benefits of recovering ugly produce and prioritize picking and selling it. Of course, there will need to be strong economic incentives in place to promote these changes. But companies like ours will invest to facilitate these changes. How? By paying suppliers fairly to recover and sell us their ugly and excess produce.
CB: When I launched Ungraded Produce, I was initially concerned that people would assume ugly produce was old and inferior and would be discouraged from trying out our service. However, I’ve found that the average consumer in the Triangle is very environmentally and socially conscious and has embraced the ugly produce concept with great enthusiasm. I’m optimistic that residents in other parts of the state will follow in their lead as we increase our presence throughout North Carolina.
First Year Status Update
CB: In 2018, our first full year in operation, we put $105,000 back into the agricultural community for products that would otherwise go unsold. We also kept 160,000 pounds of delicious produce out of landfills and donated an additional 54,000 pounds to local food banks. We’ve served over 700 customers in the Triangle, empowering them to integrate more fruits and vegetables into their diets. This also creates excitement about choosing ugly produce over “perfect” grocery store alternatives. We are also beginning to collaborate with local churches to pilot a distribution model that will enable us to accept food stamps. While we are still focused on building density in the Triangle, our future plans are to expand to other markets in North Carolina (Greensboro, Charlotte, and Wilmington, as well as rural and underserved parts of the state) over the next few years.
CB: We are rapidly growing and I am working to lay the groundwork to support this growth and fulfill our mission. As we grow, we will remain committed to developing the programs and partnerships needed to reduce food waste and give back to our community.
Final Thoughts and Yours, Too
We received our own “ugly” produce box, and aside from a few bumps and knobs, there was nothing wrong with it! I couldn’t believe that this giant box of fresh vegetables would have ended up in the trash if it hadn’t arrived on my doorstep. It made me more aware of just how much waste happens right around us, and even more thankful to have been able to nourish my child with “trash.”
If you would like to try out Ungraded Produce check out and use the code HEALTHYNC for $5 off your first box!
This interview with Courtney Bell is part of our series featuring the People of NC. Here, we’ve spotlighted folks from various walks of life throughout the state. That includes distillery owner Bill Norman, BBQ restauranteur Jerry Stephenson, chef Teddy Diggs, and now Courtney Bell. Since she’s working so hard for the people of North Carolina, we thought Bell would perfectly fit this section. A special thanks to Courtney for answering our questions during her busy week.