Courtney Bell ’17 folds cardboard boxes, stamping them with her company’s logo before placing them in a line on the floor of her workspace at Durham food hub Bull City Cool.
She crosses the floor of the workspace over and over, each time carrying a box full of different vegetables – kale, squash, tomatoes and more. She stops to weigh vegetables, tapping computer keys to catalog weight and quantity before placing each portion in a box.
The whole time she’s working, she balances her phone between her ear and shoulder, making calls to try to find a substitute driver who can help deliver the more than 60 boxes of produce she’s currently packing.
Along with her co-founder, fellow Duke senior Anya Ranganathan, Bell runs the show at Ungraded Produce, an “ugly produce” company they launched in September 2016.
She’s also a member of the fourth cohort of Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs, a student entrepreneurship program administered through the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative.
Bell said the mentorship she’s received through the program has been helpful, especially from mentors Tatiana Birgisson ’12 and former Dukie Jake Stauch.
“They were in our shoes just a few years ago, so they really know what it’s like to run a business while being a student,” she said.
Bell and Ranganathan have also worked with the Duke Law Start-up Clinic to help develop their ideas.
Two years ago, Ranganathan spent the summer working for the Mayor’s Poverty Reduction Initiative in Durham, where she saw problems such as food insecurity and lack of access to fresh produce. She approached Bell, an environmental science major who was interested in sustainable food.
“I was so excited when Anya approached me with this idea because I felt like I was finally going to have the opportunity to pursue my academic interests and my outside interests in one project,” Bell said.
The two teamed up to form Ungraded Produce and fight food waste.
Ungraded Produce aggregates high quality produce from local farms that would normally go to waste because it’s misshapen or in surplus.
About 52 percent of fruits and vegetables that are grown in the U.S. are left in the field or sent to landfills because they’d be rejected by supermarkets due to minor cosmetic defects, Bell said.
Ungraded Produce is working to change that, collecting the unused produce and selling it at price points 30 to 50 percent cheaper than supermarket prices.
Although “ugly produce” campaigns are taking off nationwide, supermarkets are hesitant to sell ugly produce because it could affect the prices of Grade A products and because the supply of ugly produce tends to fluctuate.
By sourcing close to their delivery dates, Ungraded Produce is able to work with what ugly produce farms have to offer and be more flexible than supermarkets can be.
Right now, Ranganathan and Bell are the only people behind Ungraded Produce. Bell calls the company “scrappy,” meaning she and her partner call farmers to see what produce is available, drive to pick up the produce, and take it back to Bull City Cool where they can then package the boxes. On Saturdays, they spend time driving to their subscribers’ doorsteps in Durham, Cary, Raleigh and Chapel Hill.
Subscribers can choose to purchase 5, 10 or 15 pound boxes of vegetables, as well as a 5-pound fruit box. Depending on the size of the box, boxes can hold between three to seven varieties of vegetables, and prices range from $9.50 to $19 a box.
The company is currently accepting signups for summer deliveries, which will begin May 27.
When the company launched on a trial basis in September, it has 15 subscribers. But with rapid growth and plans for further expansion on the horizon, Bell plans to remain in Durham after graduation to pursue her venture full-time.
Durham was a great place to start the company because many people who live here are excited about the environmental aspect of the company, Bell said.
“This is where we live, and we’re committed to fighting food waste and food insecurity in this area,” she said.