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.