UPPER MERION >> Not every peach is perfect to look at.
Not every pear is elegant enough for the cover of Bon Appetit magazine.
Produce that doesn’t meet the high cosmetic specifications of the grocery industry results in six billion pounds of fruits and vegetables getting wasted every year in the U.S., according to Evan Lutz, CEO of Hungry Harvest.
As an enterprising college student, Lutz set out to rescue “ugly” but perfectly edible produce from the farmers’ rejection bins to customers’ tables “at 20 percent less than grocery” with a surprisingly simple, sustainable business model.
He got his startup Hungry Harvest off the ground in the basement of his University of Maryland dorm a little more than three years ago and quickly found himself on the path to salvaging more than one million pounds of produce from area growers and wholesalers and delivering it to his growing base of subscribers, while also donating to fight hunger.
Before long, Lutz was even capturing the imagination and financial support of investor Robert Herjavec on TV’s “Shark Tank.”
“Produce goes to waste for stupid reasons,” Lutz noted in his video proposal for “Shark Tank.”
“Peppers are left in the sun for one day too long. Apples get rejected from a grocery store because they’re too small. We buy this ugly produce and deliver it to our customers. In addition, for every bag we deliver to one of our customers, we donate one to a hungry family in need.”
With Hungry Harvest having rapidly expanded from Lutz’ native Baltimore across Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and now Central Montgomery County, Lutz credited the show with making it all possible.
“Shark Tank was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life,” he said. “Exciting, because I had the opportunity to pitch my idea to five high-profile investors and fulfill one of my life goals. Nerve-racking, because I knew that everything I said and did was going to be shown to eight million people. It was an experience I’ll never forget, and it resulted in Hungry Harvest exploding in growth.”
Area manager Cynthia Plotch explained that the produce offerings are constantly changing throughout the season and are available in a number of weekly delivery options at HungryHarvest.net, from a basic $15 “mini harvest” that includes a single head of organic lettuce, yellow squash, cauliflower, cucumber, two mangos, four peaches, four plums and more, to a “super harvest” that delivers one head of organic lettuce, three yellow squash, eight peaches, four mangos, eight plums, two organic celery hearts and more.
“We’ve expanded into New Jersey, Philadelphia, the Main Line, and now into the King of Prussia, Phoenixville, Lansdale area, and we really can deliver a huge volume to a wide range of customers by partnering with drivers as independent contractors in the community,” Plotch noted, adding that subscribers can pause their delivery at any time. “We’re also developing partnerships with businesses to have produce delivered to their employees’ offices or homes.”
During the growing season in the Mid-Atlantic region the majority of Hungry Harvest produce is sourced regionally from such Pennsylvania farms as Three Springs Fruit Farm, Adams County; Hess Farms, Chambersburg, and McLeaf’s Orchards, Biglerville.
“These growers have been doing this for decades so they have a really good sense of what the stores will and won’t take,” Plotch said. “It’s all nutritional, quality stuff that the customer would never know is anything the grocery store wouldn’t want.”
During the offseason, Hungry Harvest tends to expand sourcing to suppliers who have networks of farms in warmer regions, allowing for year round delivery.
“Hungry Harvest gives me a security blanket to receive a return for quality produce, while also ensuring that we are limiting, if not eliminating, our waste on the fields,” noted Harlan Hess of Hess Farms on the Hungry Harvest website.
For every box of produce purchased in Montgomery County, Hungry Harvest is donating one to two pounds of produce to Philabundance, which provides food to approximately 90,000 people in the Philadelphia metro area every week.