Want to Reduce Food Waste? Eat Ugly Produce
Evan Lutz, CEO and co-founder of Hungry Harvest, started out selling “ugly” and surplus produce from the basement of his dorm at the University of Maryland. Evan knew from a young age that he wanted to be a social entrepreneur, and never lost sight of that dream. Today, he is a frequent guest on NPR, the Washington Post, and Baltimore news stations. Evan has been recognized in Forbes 30 under 30 for social entrepreneurship, Baltimore’s 40 under 40, and Montgomery County Emerging Business of the Year Award. He was also featured on ABC’s Shark Tank, where he made a deal with Robert Herjavec.
So far, Hungry Harvest has bought and recovered 3 million pounds of surplus produce for over 8,000 subscribers to whom they deliver boxes of fruits and vegetables in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Miami. The idea of “ugly” produce—produce that is somehow undesirable because it is not uniformly shaped, colored or textured but still perfectly edible and delicious—”has gotten a lot of traction, a lot of coverage, over the past few years,” says Evan.
Notably, in 2012, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released an issue paper called “Wasted” that revealed Americans waste a shocking 40% of their food. (Read more on food waste from NRDC.) The awareness has increased dramatically over the years. “But back in 2013 [when Hungry Harvest was just getting started] no one knew what an ugly apple really was.”
Evan has contributed to this increased interest and awareness around ugly produce, and worked tirelessly to bring it to people’s plates. “As hard as it was in the beginning, my challenges of starting this business are not nearly as hard or as difficult as some of the challenges faced by the 49 million Americans that are food-insecure in this country, that don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or that don’t have access to healthy foods,” he says.
“Food scarcity” is not a term that Evan uses because he knows exactly how much food exists in our country—and, unfortunately, how much of it is being wasted. In fact, 1 in every 5 fruits and veggies grown in America doesn’t get eaten. “There are such big disparities in this country of who gets access to what food while all this food is going to waste. It’s abysmal and I want to do something about it.”
Evan giving his pitch on the TV show “Shark Tank.”
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Evan Lutz. Evan is CEO and co-founder of Hungry Harvest, and today we’ll be talking about his business, about food waste, and about feeding the hungry, which has become a serious issue in the U.S.—not just feeding the hungry, or hungry people, but also 40 percent of all our food in this country is wasted. Hungry Harvest buys what he calls ugly and surplus produce from farms primarily in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. and delivers boxes of fruit and vegetables to customers in Baltimore; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; and Miami, Florida. And so far, Hungry Harvest has recovered three million pounds of produce for their over 8,000 active subscribers. Evan, what a pleasure and an honor to have you on our show today.
EVAN LUTZ: Thanks so much for having me on the show. I really appreciate the kind praise.
TM: And I’m just so moved by the fact that you’re just 24 years old, and you actually started this in the basement of the University of Maryland. Did I get that right?
EL: Yes, you did. I started it when I was… I actually started the pilot program for this when I was 20, and started Hungry Harvest officially when I was 21. But yeah, it all started out of a basement dorm when I was selling ugly fruits and veggies in the farm stand, and it grew out of there into Hungry Harvest and what it’s become today.
TM: Well, I am so curious: what gave you this passion for trying to change the food system and coming up with a solution that is both a good solution for both using waste as well as feeding the hungry, at such a young age? What got you interested in that?
EL: Great question. I heard a talk when I was 12 or 13 years old that made me have an epiphany about life. And I thought I was going to go to high school and then go to college and then get a corporate job somewhere, work my way up the corporate ladder, and never really live my dreams, and then die really soon without doing any of that. And so I made a promise to myself at that age that I would try to start what I’m really passionate about, which is social enterprise—which is business that not just makes money but also gives back to the community in some capacity.
And so my entire life, all I’ve wanted to do is become a social entrepreneur. And when I was at Maryland I started working for an organization called Food Recovery Network, where they take leftover dining hall food from college campuses and use student volunteers and then drive it down to soup kitchens and homeless shelters and places where it can get redistributed and not gone to waste. And that’s where I first got introduced to the idea of surplus fruits and vegetables. This idea has gotten a lot of traction, a lot of coverage over the past few years. But back in 2013 nobody knew what an ugly apple really was; very few people did.
And so that’s where I first got introduced to the idea. I started a farm stand from selling ugly produce in the basement of a dorm. The program grew and grew and grew to 500 customers a week. And in May 2014 I turned that into Hungry Harvest. So I knew that I had to commit everything I had to living out my dream, which was, again, becoming a social entrepreneur.
TM: Wow, you just gave me a chill telling me that. Just so delightful to hear the combination of wanting to have a meaningful life and really make a difference and at the same time be able to make a living so that you can actually support yourself doing it. I am going to expect that those early years were pretty tough, weren’t they? It’s hard to be an entrepreneur, especially with a social mission.
EL: It is, you know, it is. It was definitely tough. I didn’t pay myself for two years, and I was living at home in Mom and Dad’s basement, struggling, to say the least, through delivery service. However, I chose this life. So it was a choice I made to become a social entrepreneur. So as hard as it was in the beginning, my challenges of starting this business are not nearly as hard or as difficult as some of the challenges faced by the 49 million Americans that are food insecure in this country, that don’t know where their next meal is coming from or don’t have access to healthy foods. And that’s what kept me going through those hard times, is knowing that the impact that I can potentially make through this business, that the struggles that people go through pale in comparison to the struggle I was going through as an entrepreneur.
TM: Wow, what an amazing comparison. And did I hear you say 49 million Americans?
EL: I believe that the most recent number is 49 million Americans are food insecure.
TM: Are food insecure—and many of them, of course, are children, aren’t they in America, struggling with hunger?
EL: Yeah, it’s really…it’s a travesty. You know, I’m from Baltimore, and it’s a very segregated city based on socially economic status and where you live. And so in our office today, if we walk a mile in one direction it’s beautiful, the Inner Harbor, whereas if you walk a mile in the other direction, it’s a food desert, where’s there’s no healthy produce options available. And I think it’s a travesty that we have people that are living a mile away from prosperous sections of town that haven’t tasted a strawberry. And it’s even more horrendous when you think about 20 miles away where there, a food hub is—Maryland Produce Market is wasting, quite literally, millions of pounds of produce every single year are going to waste in that market and markets around the country and on farms. I just can’t stand by while this problem persists.
Food is the foundation of innovation. Everybody has to eat three times a day, right? So there’s such high demand in the food industry. Everybody has to eat. And the fact that there’s such big disparities in this country of who gets access to what food, while all this food is going to waste, it’s just abysmal, and I want to do something about it.
TM: You know, that is such an entrepreneurial thing to do, is to put these two things together: waste, which you put at 40 percent—I’ve heard that in different areas of the United States and around the world it’s as high as 45 percent or even higher; and then with hunger and hungry people. And I read that you were really struggling and then in 2015, after really trying to get this off the ground, you were on a show called Shark Tank. That was the first time I’ve heard of it. Tell us about Shark Tank.
EL: Shark Tank was an incredible experience. We first got reached out to by the producers of Shark Tank in February of 2015. And they wanted us to come on the show, and when they told us about the application process, they said it was a 50-page handwritten application, plus we had to make a 5- to 10-minute video. And they said also 45,000 companies apply every year. So we said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” You know, we have a business to run!
Eventually, we got to April and they really encouraged us to apply, and so we said sure. We just sat down and made a video in the afternoon, filled out the application, moved on to the next round and the next round, and finally in June 2015 they gave me a call when I was driving and said, “Congratulations, we’re flying you out to go on Shark Tank,” which was amazing. I was in L.A.—I’d never been there before—and so we flew out, and I went on the show and asked for a deal for 5 percent, for $50,000. It came out 35 minutes later with a deal with Robert Herjavec for 10 percent for $100,000. That episode actually aired about seven months later in January of 2016, and our business has just really exploded ever since.
TM: That is so encouraging and just so hopeful. Wow, what an amazing difference some media will do, and I’m so happy for you that that happened. And it looks like your struggles were truly worth it, putting those things together. And how’s it going now?
EL: It’s going terrific. We’ve grown from a team of four in January 2016 to, by the end of the summer, we’ll be at 24; by the end of this year we’ll be at 30. We’ve spread across three different cities and all the way down to Miami now. We’re at over 8,000 customers. It took us, just to put that in perspective, it took us about a year and half to get up to 500, and the rest have come in the second year and a half in the business—and we’ve only been around for three years. So the growth in the past year and a half has just been phenomenal. Just really lucky and proud to be leading Hungry Harvest.
TM: Well, you know, my parents—I told you that I’m probably old enough to be your grandma—and my mother and father, of course, lived through the Great Depression. And we heard, all growing up, this idea of “waste not, want not.” And I wondered, do you think that the youth in today’s population really are aware of just how much we’re wasting?
EL: Yeah, it really starts at the consumer level. Really, it starts with consumers getting educated about how much they’re throwing away. If they start to throw away less and waste less, then businesses will catch on to this idea. And really, it makes a lot of business sense for farms and for wholesalers and for logistics companies to waste a lot less food. You know, that’s money that they’re spending that they shouldn’t be wasting on food that goes to waste, right? So if consumers—where I grew up, when I grew up, when you took, at the dinner table, you took as much food as you wanted to eat, except nothing on your plate could be left over. You had to finish everything on your plate. Anything that was left on the table got wrapped up. We didn’t waste a single thing. And that’s the way I think everybody should be raised, is that you just don’t waste food. It’s not something people in other countries do.
TM: Well, you know, you learned at an early age to, “No, I’m only going to take what I’m going to eat.” Do you give any advice to people on just that side of it, of trying not to waste? How does that play out in the culture of your business?
EL: Yeah, a lot of our consumers that we’ve talked to also say, now that they’ve signed up for Hungry Harvest and they understand these principles of wasting less, they’re also wasting less in a lot of other aspects in their life, which is really, really great. We have a great Fridge Storage Guide that’s on our website that tells you different tips on how to store different fruits and vegetables. For example, I’m sure a lot of people just put all their fruits and vegetables in that one drawer in their fridge. That’s actually not the right thing to do. I like to call it the produce coffin—that’s where produce goes to die. You know, you open it after a couple of weeks and everything’s bad and moldy or rotten. And that’s because produce likes different temperatures and environments. You’re actually supposed to store greens, like romaine, actually you should cut off the top leaves, leave the stem, put it in a vase of water and just watch it grow back. Same with garlic. Onions and avocados shouldn’t be stored together. There are various tips like that that a lot of people don’t know and don’t really adhere by.
So you should check out the Fridge Storage Guide on our website. And there are a lot of other websites as well. The NRDC, National Resource Defense Council, also put together an entire campaign website on how to best store produce in your fridge. You should check that out as well, just look up NRDC.org.
TM: And Evan, your website is—?
TM: HungryHarvest.net. And listeners, think about that: the Fridge Storage Guide. I was introduced to the idea that maybe not everything should go into what you’re calling the produce coffin, by the Koreans. They’re crazy for their fermented foods that, as everyone knows, is kimchi. And they have refrigerators that are just, almost no shelves but just different “coffins” that they can control the temperature on. But I’m curious, when we talk about waste we often think of just fresh produce like fruits and vegetables. What percentage of the waste are the fresh produce categories?
EL: I don’t know the exact percentage of the waste, but I can tell you 1 in 5 fruits and vegetables grown in this country don’t get eaten. All right, so that’s 20 percent. I can also rattle off another statistic, such as 18 percent of all the croplands in America is used for produce that doesn’t get eaten, right? Eighteen percent—almost 20 percent of our land. Twenty-one percent of our water, our fresh water use in America, is actually used on fruits and vegetables that never get eaten. To put that into perspective, that’s the size of Lake Tahoe that we spray on fruits and vegetables that go to waste. Which is absurd to think about that, when we’ve got 49 million Americans—1 in 6 Americans—that are food insecure and don’t have access to healthy foods. It just doesn’t make sense.
And from my perspective, charities and nonprofits, there are tons of food banks and organizations that try to rescue food, or that do rescue food. And I think they’re doing a tremendous work and doing a really, really great job. My perspective is, there needs to be business in this equation. Businesses need to adhere to the rules of supply and demand, which there’s so much excess supply in the market and there’s so much demand for those healthy foods by 49 million people that otherwise don’t have access for it. And I encourage other business to see the opportunity that we’ve actually pursued of sourcing excess produce and selling it to (a) our customers and (b) people living in food deserts, and really try to tackle this problem as well. Because we’re not going to be able to do it ourselves. We can certainly try, but we need other businesses to really catch on with these principles as well.
TM: You know, I’m going to bet that you’ve learned an awful lot about the hungry and about food scarcity in the kind of work that you’re doing now. What can you tell us about what you’ve learned about food scarcity and what the real issues are?
EL: People don’t like to accept donations. They do because they have to, or they’re free and they’re being presented to them. But people really don’t want…it’s not empowering to accept donations. It gets in people’s minds that they shouldn’t accept handouts. And they feel less than other people because they don’t have this buying power, right? People really want choices.
One of the greatest parts about this country is just the purchasing power of consumers. Consumers can go to any different grocery store, they have 60,000 SKUs there to choose; they have 15 different types of laundry detergent, right? And businesses have to compete over that buying power.
What people living in food deserts don’t have is that buying power. They don’t have any options for healthy produce or healthy food because there are no grocery stores around them that are willing to offer produce at a reasonable price.
So that’s what we’re trying to change. We see this population that’s been completely overlooked by the food industry [and] we’re saying, “This is not only a population that needs help from us, but also a population that we can serve and make a business off of.” And we’re not trying to make money off of the food insecure—that’s not at all what we’re doing. Instead, what we’re doing is using our profits from what’s called Produce in a SNAP.
Basically we set up these farm stands, kind of like how I started out at the University of Maryland. We’re partnering with public schools and paying student managers and accepting EBT to sell $7 bags of produce to people in need. And we’re using the profits from those stands to then fund more stands. We started at one stand in Baltimore City in August of last year; we’re currently at 10 different sites; we’ll be at 20 by the end of the year. EBT machines cost $300 and we have to pay student managers, so all those expenses cost a lot of money. And we can use the sales we make from each site then to fuel more sites, so we can then feed more people.
And this is a model that’s actually scalable to other cities as well. So when we were thinking about how we can best end this epidemic of hunger, it wasn’t through donations. It was through a model that’s affordable, accessible, sustainable, and in demand. And that’s what this Produce in a SNAP program is really here to do, to satisfy those four criteria.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with Evan Lutz, CEO and co-founder of Hungry Harvest, and today we’re talking about recovering ugly produce.
You know, I’m very interested in this idea of food scarcity. I interviewed, last year, Francis Moore Lappè, who’s on the east coast in Boston, and she wrote a book, Diet for a Small Planet. She said that food scarcity’s a myth and that we in fact do have plenty of food to feed probably the whole world if we wanted to. Is that what you’re finding?
EL: Absolutely. Yeah, food scarcity is not a term that I use because I know how much food there is in this country. If we reduced waste by, I think, just a third—I believe it’s either 25 percent or 33 percent we reduced the amount of food we wasted—we would be able to feed everybody in this country. So we’re actually producing more food than we really need. In 33 years, in 2050, we’re going to have 10 billion people on the planet. How are we going to feed 10 billion people when we’re wasting almost 40 percent of everything we grow? It’s not going to work. It’s not sustainable. We’re not going to somehow create more farmland in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
What we have to do is become more efficient with our food system. And we have to find good farming practices so that we have higher yields and we waste less on the farm level. We have to find ways to waste less on the logistics and throughout these entire supply chains, ultimately through the grocery stores and all the way to the consumer level. So really, our food system has to get more efficient or we’re going to find ourselves in a big pickle in 2050 when we have 10 billion people.
In a sense we’ve already seen a lot of these problems come up today, of just not being able to feed enough people. The fact that 850 million people across the world, 10 percent of the world’s population, are going hungry on a daily basis, what’s that number going to look like when we have 10 billion people? Is it going to be a billion people? And at what point are we going to say enough is enough? We need to fix our food system. We need to make it more efficient, or this is not going to last.
TM: Well, you know, I’m curious: You are gathering millions of pounds of food, of fruits and veggies, in Baltimore, Philadelphia, D.C., Miami—but where’s it coming from?
EL: Yeah, we source directly from farms and occasionally from wholesalers as well, who are either, well, I’m gonna [[20:50 (??)]] on an item or get a rejected load from a grocery store. So none of our produce has ever seen the inside of a retail outlet, right? So we’re sourcing fresh from the farm or rejected loads.
These are some of the most ridiculous stories I’ve ever heard. So we had a rejected load of cantaloupe the other week. The cantaloupe, I think that what was wrong with them was they had a few scars on the outside that a grocery store rejected them for. There was a rejected load back in November that I can think of where acorn squash, which naturally is green and orange and yellow, had too much orange and yellow on them. So I think it was a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s or somewhere that actually rejected them just for having too much orange and yellow. And I think that’s ridiculous. You know, that food should absolutely be eaten. So we’re able to procure and rescue that produce from going to waste as well.
TM: What did we do to train our grocery retailers and our consumers that we have to have everything perfect?
EL: A hundred years ago, nobody in my part of the country, in Baltimore, knew what a mango tasted like or knew what a banana tasted like, right? There wasn’t a globalized food system like there is today. People were used to shopping in markets, picking out produce and picking everything out themselves. And we’ve come to a food system today where there’s so many different choices, a globalized food system where the price of food is so cheap that people don’t value it at all. They just see it as a few bucks here and there, and they’re willing to let that go to waste because that’s not that important to them. In reality, letting food go waste is a much bigger problem than just wasting a couple dollars on the daily or weekly basis. And so because of the increasing amount of consumer choices, people are willing to not choose produce that doesn’t look the absolute best.
And so what grocery stores started doing is only putting the best, freshest looking product out. If you walk down a grocery store aisle, you see all the apples lined up, shiny, same size, same color, same shape, and you might wonder how everything grew the same exact way. If you’ve ever been to a farm, you know that everything grows all different sizes, shapes, colors, and we actually shouldn’t…we’ve trained our brain, over the past 30, 40 years, from going to the grocery store so often and having all these choices, that we should only eat the best-looking products, when in reality, that doesn’t diminish the taste at all.
TM: And I think… That’s so well said, and I think that our customers and consumers out there, our public, may not also understand that to get that perfect apple takes a lot of poison sometimes. I’m so curious what you think about just this whole idea of the throw-away society. It isn’t just food; it’s all kinds of things now. Very curious on how we kind of have a…we do some kind of a change, a quarter turn, I don’t know what it is, on this idea of valuing things in a different way—not putting too much food on our plate, and things like that. What do you think might work as just a way of trying to get that culture going here in the U.S.?
EL: Storytelling is an incredibly powerful tool. You know why everybody wants to become entrepreneurs these days? The reason is everybody heard about Mark Zuckerberg starting Facebook from his dorm room and thought, “I could become the next Mark Zuckerberg.” Right? And become a billionaire. And that story is so appealing to so many people: all you need is a laptop and you could become a billionaire. You can start a really big business, right? That story is really powerful, and that encouraged thousands, millions of people to become entrepreneurs in the past decade. So I think we need better storytelling in the food world.
We need to tell the story of where an apple came from—how it got to grow that way, what weather conditions made its shape, what did the farmer do to that apple to make it taste just right. And how do they harvest it, when do they harvest it, how do they treat it throughout the year? We need to tell the story of how an apple got from the farm to your mouth, in a much, much better way. When people go to the grocery store, they don’t see any of that. My feeling is that people would eat a lot less red meat, and meat in general in this country, if they could see the story behind that meat. I think people would not find the concept of eating meat very attractive if they saw the story of how that meat got to that grocery store, right?
The same thing is with produce. I think people will eat and value produce a lot more, and will value it a lot more if they understand the story behind how that produce got to the grocery store or the farmers’ market or whatever it is. And that’s one of the reasons why farmers’ markets has really risen in popularity in recent years, is because people love that story of you’re meeting your local farmer, it’s local, you can talk to the guy that actually grew it. When you go to a grocery store, it might be cheaper, but you don’t get that same story.
TM: You know, I want to say, Evan, that I think you’re as incredibly powerful as Mark Zuckerberg, and in fact in some ways even more powerful.
EL: Thank you, I appreciate it. I really do.
TM: And I love your message, it’s just so strong. I’m really inspired by what you’re doing. You said that you’re trying to encourage others, “Hey, you know what? There’s lots of room for you here” in this particular recovery, you might say, of ugly and surplus produce and getting it out into the food deserts. What kind of advice would you like to give folks out there if they’re interested in doing more of this or being part of it?
EL: You can like us on social media and get part of the conversation. Really, a part of our mission, part of what we do is not just physically reduce food from going to waste with our own business model, we also like to inspire others to do the same in their own homes or with their own businesses. We like to think of our brand as a leading brand in recovering produce from going to waste in the United States. So I’d love for anybody out there to be a part of the conversation. You can tweet at us—we’re on Twitter @HungryHarvest, or Instagram and Facebook. And please, we love to hear your ideas, and I always like to talk to like-minded people who are equally as passionate about solving the food system as I am.
So please reach out if you’re interested. We always have openings here at Hungry Harvest that we’re recruiting for, and we’re going to be expanding to more cities. You can sign up at HungryHarvest.net and shoot us an email at Family@HungryHarvest.net as well if you want to talk further about any of the topics that we talked about today.
TM: Thank you so much, Evan. And all of you out there, if you’re interested in this, and I hope that all of you listeners out there do visit the website, and I definitely will, Evan. And I’m very grateful for you taking the time to talk with us today.
EL: Thank you so much for having me on the show. I really appreciate it.