How one 'ugly produce' startup saved almost 200,000 pounds of food

Hungry Harvest, a Maryland-based company, has saved more than 200,000 pounds of ugly produce in a year. How did the startup do it?

Keith Srakocic/AP/File
Bunches of Chiquita brand bananas for sale at a grocery store in Zelienople, Pa. Hungry Harvest, a Maryland-based company, has saved more than 200,000 pounds of 'ugly produce' in a year.

With all the talk of the potential for ugly or cosmetically challenged produce sales in the United States, one company is about to hit a significant milestone actually selling such produce. Hungry Harvest of Columbia, Maryland, as Food Tank reported in February, started by selling US$5 produce bags in front of the University of Maryland Student Union just over a year ago when their founders Evan Lutz and Ben Simon (now of Imperfect Produce) were seniors and boy have they grown up! The company, whose tagline is “produce with purpose” will soon reach 100,000 pounds sold and 100,000 pounds donated in less than one year of full time business! Now that’s produce with impact!

To put 200,000 pounds (100 tons) for small company like Hungry Harvest into perspective, consider Bon Appetit Management Company. With 500 cafes around the U.S., Bon Appetit has a one year-old Imperfectly Delicious program where they are recovering ugly produce as well. Imperfectly Delicious, a solid effort, has recovered 46 tons of produce since it started in May of 2014, half as much as the little ugly produce with purpose company that could, Hungry Harvest.

How does Hungry Harvest make it happen? As a community supported agriculture (CSA) service near Washington, D.C., they deliver produce directly to homes and businesses for a discount from what traditional CSAs would charge. And not only does Hungry Harvest prevent waste by saving ugly produce, they have a social mission to donate tons of fresh and tasty (but a little different looking) produce, almost 50 tons or 100,000 pounds so far. The donations go to partner nonprofits such as community dining rooms (please don’t call them soup kitchens any more), food banks, and food pantries. Hungry Harvest even has public produce distribution events in areas where folks are in need.

And the community-based ethos that encompasses Hungry Harvest doesn’t just stop there. They have a number of innovative community partnerships that are integral to their food waste, malnutrition, and hunger-fighting service. Partnerships with those like Manna Food Center, who lends Hungry Harvest operation space in exchange for produce donations; Medstar Health, who has 100 employees receiving produce at their offices; and Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless Men’s Shelter, where Hungry Harvest hires some folks to work for them on the weekends. Hungry Harvest also works with gleaning groups in the summer to take customers and volunteers to glean and donate.

All of that, on top of helping out 20 farms and some wholesalers that would otherwise have had to waste the perfectly tasty and nutritious ugly produce. So what’s in the future for Hungry Harvest? After their early success, they are expanding, what else! With more than 600 paying members, and growing, Hungry Harvest is currently looking for their own, larger, warehouse space and they are in the process of securing US$250,000 in seed round venture capital funding. And last, but not least, they are in talks with a major distributor in 40 locations around the country where Hungry Harvest would help save more produce, while making it more accessible.

And in case you aren’t in Hungry Harvest’s current territory of the Washington, D.C. and Maryland area, you might be soon. They expect to be serving Virginia by the end of the year and after that, hopefully Pennsylvania and then who knows? With goals to reach 10,000 households in the I-95 corridor, they might be providing produce with purpose and impact in your neighborhood sooner than you think. So keep yourself in the Hungry Harvest loop and subscribe to their newsletter that’s filled with cooking tips and a dash of ugly produce humor (as you can see in my favorite squash neck support picture above). Or follow them on social media on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook. And don’t forget to support them and their produce with purpose and impact as they are truly making beautiful things happen with ugly produce!

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