Free Enterprise Staff  | November 11, 2018

The Baltimore-Based Startup Fighting to End Food Waste

Hungry Harvest Founder Evan Lutz will be speaking at the Corporate Citizenship Awards Conference on November 16 about the way businesses can step up to make a difference in society. Register for the CCC Conference for a chance to hear Evan talk about profits, purpose and produce.

Up to $1 trillion worth of food is wasted every year in the United States, but millions of Americans live in food insecure households. Hungry Harvest is using one epidemic to fix another.

Hungry Harvest is an organization founded by University of Maryland graduate Evan Lutz that aims to reduce food waste and eradicate hunger in the U.S. by selling recovered fruits and vegetables.

“Recovered” food may sound a little unappealing, but it’s not what you think it is.

Hungry Harvest Shark Tank

Food is often discarded by supermarkets because of logistical inefficiencies (they ordered too much) or minor cosmetic imperfections (it’s too ugly to sell). Recovered produce is food that is completely fine to eat, but would normally be thrown away.

Hungry Harvest buys recovered food and sells it to subscribers in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and the surrounding areas. Customers can choose between 10 box options—the most popular being the Mini Recovered Harvest (five to seven-and-a-half pounds of produce for $15)—to be delivered to their door every one or two weeks.

Every Thursday, subscribers receive an email detailing the types of produce they are about to receive, why the produce was rejected, and healthy recipes using the ingredients of the week. Evan’s favorite recipe? His mom makes a mean eggplant parmesan.

Every box sold funds donations to food banks in the area as well as subsidized farmer’s markets in urban areas where it is difficult to buy affordable and good quality food, also known as food deserts.

Hungry Harvest struck a deal with Robert Herjavec on Shark Tank in January 2016, which has helped the company grow from 500 customers to almost 5,000.

What inspired you to start Hungry Harvest?

“My whole life I’ve wanted to become an entrepreneur. I don’t want to just make money; I want to give back to the community. My senior year at the University of Maryland I interned at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Business Corporate Leadership Center (now the Corporate Citizenship Center), and, afterward, I got an internship working for a nonprofit called Food Recovery Network. Basically, they take leftover dining hall food from college campuses and drive it to the soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and food pantries where the food can be redistributed.

I was approached by a supplier for surplus merchandise who wanted to sell us their produce. I had no idea what recovered fruits and vegetables were at the time, but I set up a table in the basement of my dorm building and started selling five pounds of produce for $5 each. The first week a few students came, the next week 20, and soon we had to move our table outside because we’d have 500 people show up. In May 2014, I turned that table into Hungry Harvest.”

What made you want to start your own business instead of continuing to work with an already established non-profit?

“I really wanted to be different. I wanted to create something bigger than myself and make a lasting impact, but I didn’t think I could do it if I worked for somebody else. I had to do it the hard way and start the business myself.”

What is your strategy for changing consumer’s minds about ugly produce?

“Just really getting them to see that there is no difference between recovered fruits and vegetables and stuff that you would normally buy in a farmer’s market or grocery store. When people think of food waste, they think of things being composted or things that are moldy or rotten, but we want to change that perception.

So when you think of recovered produce, we don’t want you to think it isn’t fresh. Food isn’t grown moldy or rotten. It became that way because no one ate it. It’s really about getting that message across.”

On Shark Tank, some of the judges expressed concern about you donating products before you turned a profit. What made you choose to donate products even though your business was not yet in the black?

“It’s a part of our mission. We aren’t going to eliminate a special piece of our business model just because we want to make more money.”

What are some of the ways you give back to the community?

“In addition to donating to local food banks, we set up produce pick-up sites at schools in food desserts so parents picking up their children can get affordable fruits and vegetables. We realized that selling products at a subsidized rate is a lot more impactful than giving the products away for a couple reasons. One: it isn’t sustainable. Donating produce costs a lot of money, and we want to do as much good as we can without running ourselves out of business. The second reason is that no one accepts donations because they want to. Nobody wants to feel like they are a charity case. People want to be empowered through their purchasing power.”

What has been your personal experience working at the food pickup sites?

“We’ve had people come to us and say they’ve eaten nothing but white bread and American cheese for years, and now they have access to affordable produce. Now people who have five kids and no way to get to a grocery store are able to buy two large bags of healthy groceries for their families for less than $20.

We believe in a couple of fundamental principles. One being that no food should go to waste, no matter where it’s grown, what it looks like or how it’s packaged. Two, that no person should go hungry, no matter where they live, their income level, or the state of the economy. What is important to us is to eliminate hunger in Baltimore within the next five years, and we aren’t going to do that by being greedy or trying to pinch every dollar.”

There is a lot of buzz right now about social entrepreneurship. How do you strike a balance between making a profit and making a difference?

“I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. If we can achieve both at the same time, that’s ideal. There is nothing wrong with making money. It drives the economy, and the profits pass on to employees so they can reinvest it. That’s great, but we really want to do it in the right way. We want to be a profitable and successful business, but we want to make our money by making a tangible impact in the community.”

What tip would you give someone else looking to start their own business?

“Entrepreneurship and life are defined by decisions, not conditions. The conditions are never going to be right for you to start a business. If you take a risk, you can help make a big difference in the community, no matter what you want to do.”

As a former CCC Intern, what does it mean to you to be presenting at this conference?

“I had a bucket list of places where I’ve wanted to speak and this was on it. I just got to speak to a University of Maryland Conference in Philadelphia, and now I get to go back to the CCC and speak where I was once an intern. It’s a really humbling experience to be able to go back to the places that shaped my career and get to share what I’m doing. It’s really amazing.”

Interested in signing up for a Hungry Harvest subscription? Visit the company’s website!