Duke student startup gives ugly produce a home

<p>Ungraded Produce delivers baskets to customers’ doors every other week.</p>

Ungraded Produce delivers baskets to customers’ doors every other week.

Seniors Courtney Bell and Anya Ranganathan believe that our food system is broken—and they’ve started their own company to change that.

Their startup Ungraded Produce obtains misshapen produce from farms in Durham County and delivers boxes of produce to its subscribers’ doorsteps every other week. Customers pay $13 per 10 lb. box, each containing between four and six types of produce. Bell and Ranganathan noted that they were inspired to start Ungraded Produce during Summer 2015, when Bell’s longstanding interest in sustainable agriculture coincided with Ranganathan’s internship at the Durham Poverty Reduction Initiative.

“We wanted to employ a private-sector solution to address issues of food insecurity and food waste in America,” Ranganathan said. “We picked a private-sector, for-profit route because it’s more inherently sustainable. If you structure the company right, you don’t have to worry about seeking outside funding.”

Since then, they have worked with the legal clinics at the Duke Law School, as well as the Nicholas School, to formulate their present business model and have received further support from the Innovation & Entrepreneurship program regarding advertising. The duo expressed gratitude for the Duke community and the amount of effort people have been willing to put in to help them succeed. In April, the company was awarded a $5,000 Environmental Innovation and Entrepreneurship Grant from the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Currently, Bell and Ranganathan run all operations themselves. At the start of each week, they send Durham farmers surveys to find out the misshapen produce they have on hand. Bell and Ranganathan place their orders for the items they want, collect the produce and store them in rented cold storage space at Bull City Cool Hub.

“We’re very hands-on right now,” Bell said. “We lay it all out, we bag it, we weigh it, we make sure everyone gets the right amount, we put it in our delivery bags and we make the deliveries.”

Their customers include Duke undergraduate and graduate students as well as alumni. 

“It’s been really striking how positive the feedback has been," Ranganathan said. "We’ve had clients say, 'I’d pay more for this.'”

Senior Lara Haft said that her subscription to Ungraded Produce had reduced her grocery bill and the time she spends shopping. Senior Jessica Lee agreed, noting the difficulty of buying produce at Duke. 

“I’ve lived on Central since sophomore year, and I really enjoy cooking, but vegetables are hard to purchase on campus,” Lee said. 

However, Lee said that it would be nice to know in advance what produce she will receive and put in requests for the kinds of produce in the baskets. Lee noted though that sometimes the unexpected foods have lead to interesting creations. 

“I would never have thought of making jalapeno chocolate chip cookies if we hadn’t gotten a bunch of jalapenos in one of the baskets, but make them I did, and they were delicious," Lee said. 

Bell and Ranganathan currently serve about 15 customers in their trial phase happening now but expect to serve 35 customers by next spring and will reach out to farms within an expanded 40-mile radius.  They have plans for petite five lb. baskets, large 15 lb. baskets as well as all-vegetable or all-fruit baskets.

The team is also looking into adding more points of distribution to their supply chain. They aim to include an option for subscribers to sponsor a food-insecure family in the near future as well.

The duo noted that the process of developing Ungraded Produce has been personally enlightening, adding that they had learned more about the extent of food wastage during the last two years.

Bell expressed her commitment to running Ungraded Produce in the Durham area beyond graduation next spring. 

"As an environmental science major who wants to go into sustainable food, I was definitely very conscious during my sophomore year that I have this interest—but what am I going to do with that after college?" Bell said. "Coming up with this idea was a blessing. It does make me more confident in pursuing my interests.”


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