Courtney Bell wears a lot of hats: CEO, logistics manager, environmentalist, produce distributor. As the 23-year-old founder of Ungraded Produce, a Hillsborough startup providing fruits and vegetables to subscribers, Bell has her hands full, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Started during the summer before Bell’s junior year at Duke University, Ungraded Produce is a subscription-based produce delivery service aiming to fight food waste and improve food access in the Triangle. Bell said she was inspired after learning about the inefficiencies in the agricultural system that lead to the waste of perfectly good produce.
“The main problem is that a lot of produce, about half the produce grown in America, goes to waste,” Bell said. “A lot of it because it’s ugly, which is just like misshapen but high quality, or in excess.”
Farmers know that grocery stores would reject these misshapen fruits and vegetables, so they’re just left in the fields to rot. Even if the produce is sent to a sorting and inspections facility, they can end up in the dumpsters. This, Bell said, is the reason not all of their products are grown locally.
“There’s a lot of packing houses and other warehouse distributor facilities in North Carolina that are receiving shipments of produce from farms all over the country,” Bell said.
Even if the produce is picked and sent to North Carolina, it may still be culled at an inspection facility, she said.
Although Ungraded Produce is growing in popularity and now has over 500 customers in the Triangle, Bell said it was a long journey to get here. At first, she did everything herself, and she still has a very hands-on role with only one other full-time employee.
“We’re still a very lean operation,” she said. “I meet the drivers on the weekends to let them into the warehouse, I’m answering their calls on the weekends, too, and answering customer emails in case something went wrong. So I’m always kind of on, even if I’m not actually working.”
Her hard work hasn’t curtailed the challenges, however. Bell said finding a job in the agricultural and environmental fields out of college was difficult because there weren’t many jobs for recent college graduates.
But Bell said she realized she wasn’t alone.
“When I graduated, we had a ceremony for the environmental science majors, and they read a little bio about each of us, and almost every single person was going to work in a lab or going straight to get their PhD,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of jobs out there for environmental science majors right after college because of these circumstances in the industry, I guess.”
Although she has a background in science and agriculture, Bell said her lack of a business background also proved difficult as she tried to execute marketing initiatives.
“We’re finally getting there, and we’re about the launch some really big campaigns, but it’s taken a while,” she said.
As a young woman in the agricultural sphere, she said she’s encountered people who don’t take her seriously. About a year and a half ago, Bell said she went to a grower-buyer meetup, but when she spoke with one large provider, he recommended she contact his parents at the Raleigh farmers’ market.
“I’m thinking to myself, like, you’re the grower and I’m the buyer,” Bell said. “If we’re going to figure something out, I want to talk to you.”
Around the same time, Bell began raising money to expand and hire other employees. Now, she has one other full-time employee who orders the produce and oversees the packing and quality control, allowing Bell to focus on the business side of the company.
Though she’s expanded the operation, Bell doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
“Every week is a different challenge,” she said. “It could be more stuff you have to cull than usual, something could be bad quality, whatever.”
She’s always on the go, but Bell seems to like it that way.
“You can never just sit back and let things happen,” she said.
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