When I was in college, I sought out pizza delivery, not kale delivery. Maybe that's because kale wasn't yet a superfood, but more likely it's because I wasn't classmates with anyone like Courtney Bell.
In 2016, the Duke University senior launched Ungraded Produce, a delivery service that fulfills its mission to reduce food waste and improve access to fresh, affordable produce by rescuing "ugly" produce and selling it at a discount. A handful of Duke students were her first customers; in two years, Ungraded has grown to four hundred and fifty subscribers Triangle-wide, rescued sixty thousand pounds of ugly and surplus produce, and donated nine thousand pounds of food to local food banks.
"Ugly produce is anything that's atypically sized, shaped, or colored, like a twisted carrot. It's nothing to do with quality issues, just cosmetic flaws, like light bruising or scarring," Bell explains. "There's a belief among retailers that offering these products lowers their value, so a lot of grocery stores reject minor flawed produce."
As a result, about 20 percent of U.S.-grown produce goes to waste annually. The name Ungraded Produce is a cheeky nod to the USDA's standardized language used to grade, or characterize, produce. Grocery stores typically sell Grade 1, while Ungraded sells Grade 2, the ugly produce that's been rejected due to cosmetic flaws. But Grade 2 can also include produce that's beyond the point of sale, so Bell exercises quality control to ensure that she's only selling the ugly Grade 2 produce.
"I try to source as much ugly produce as possible, but I'm also committed to offering food at accessible prices," says Bell.
To that end, Bell also sources surplus produce from farmers and packing houses, centralized distribution centers that receive, sort, and package produce for supermarkets.
The idea for Ungraded Produce was partly inspired by a friend of Bell's who, during a summer 2015 internship in Durham Mayor Bill Bell's office, discovered alarming statistics concerning food-insecure residents and widespread demand for fresh, affordable produce. Courtney Bell, who had heard about an ugly produce initiative in French supermarkets, saw an opportunity to tap into the U.S.'s ugly produce market to get fresh food to more people.
In 2016, Bell partnered with three local farms and signed up fifteen customers, a mix of her Duke sorority sisters and alumni, and used her SUV to deliver ten-pound produce boxes on campus.
Over the last two years, the customer base has steadily grown, primarily by word of mouth. Up until last April, Bell handled everything—from ordering to packing to delivery (with one driver). Since then, she's hired three drivers, an operations manager, Troy Coll, and a marketing intern, allowing Bell to focus on business development. In May, she also launched a new website.
It's easy to get started. Enter your address, select your product—the medium mixed produce box ($18.49) is the most popular—quantity, and delivery frequency. You can also opt to skip deliveries and note allergies or preferences.
Boxes offer plenty of variety: A small vegetable box includes one starch, one leafy green, and two or three other veggies. This time of year, boxes contain up to 50 percent local produce, such as a recent fruit box with white peaches, plums, and Ginger Gold apples.
Produce is delivered to Ungraded's warehouse (a shared space in the Piedmont Food & Agriculture Processing Center) on Thursday, packed on Friday, and delivered over the weekend. Besides saving time, a box of Ungraded Produce ends up being around 30 percent cheaper. And for every box sold, Ungraded donates a portion of fresh produce to local food pantries, fulfilling the company's mission to feed food-insecure people.
"When you get to hear from the customers about how much they value the service—whether it's supporting a company with a mission, revolutionizing their grocery shopping experience, encouraging them to try new vegetables, or helping them save money—hearing that makes it all worth it," Bell says. "And I love to be able to support farmers for growing food that's delicious and deserves a chance on the table."