5 Questions With: Ungraded Produce Founder Courtney Bell

A Duke University graduate is bringing ‘ugly’ produce into your home.
by Catherine Currin

Courtney Bell wasn’t even a college graduate when she founded her own company. She came up with the concept for Ungraded Produce in 2015, and launched a trial period in fall of 2016. An environmental science major at Duke University, Bell became the full-time President of the company following her graduation in 2017. Ungraded celebrates produce that is sometimes deemed ugly, but Bell says it can taste just as delicious. “At Ungraded Produce, we are working to improve the sustainability and equity of the North Carolina food system one ugly fruit and veggie at a time.” You can order everything from a large mixed produce box to an fruit box for your office break room—delivered straight to your door. We spoke with Bell to learn everything about her produce project.

Courtney Bell
photo by Lauren V. Allen

What sparked you to get into this industry of produce/food delivery?
I was always really interested in health and wellness as well as the environment, and became really interested in sustainable food systems when I was in high school. I chose to study environmental science at Duke because I wanted to continue focusing on food and sustainability. During my time at Duke, I learned a lot about the severity of food waste and food insecurity in our system, and wanted to find a way to mitigate these issues. I knew a thing or two about “ugly” produce (i.e. produce that is atypically sized, shaped, or colored, but still high quality), and after meeting with a few farmers in the Durham area, I realized there was a business opportunity to rescue available supplies of ugly produce from going to waste, and divert it to consumers at a discount. This discovery motivated me to start Ungraded Produce. I launched a trial period by senior fall semester, and have been running it full time since graduating in May 2017.

Lauren V. Allen

What sets you apart from the other competitors?
This is a North Carolina company run by a young female entrepreneur, and that in itself makes Ungraded Produce stand out from the crowd. I love that people in the Raleigh-Durham area really want to support local companies. By delivering “recovered” (i.e. ugly produce that has been rescued from going to waste) produce to people’s homes, we’re also providing people with an easy way to participate in the fight against food waste. As for the service itself, we offer a wide range of products that cater to the diverse set of lifestyles within the Triangle. We make an effort to offer products that work for the busy dorm-dwelling college student with just a mini fridge, young professionals who don’t have a lot of time to shop and cook, families that cook several days each week and retirees looking to get more for their money. Regardless of someone’s time, budget or storage constraints, we have a box that works for everyone.

Tell me about how you are using Ungraded to give back to the community.
First, we are incentivizing farmers to pick and sell us their ugly produce rather than leave it in the fields. This puts more money back into our agricultural industry and prevents food waste right at the source.

Because we are buying a product that would normally go unsold, we can in turn sell it at a discount—our produce boxes are priced 30-50 percent cheaper than supermarket alternatives. After aggregating produce and packing it in boxes, we deliver it directly to customers’ homes. Our affordable prices and convenient home delivery model help consumers to overcome any time, transportation or budget constraints to accessing fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables. We also donate 2-5 pounds of fresh produce for every box sold to local food banks.

Lauren V. Allen

In our first full year in operation (2018), we put $105,000 back into the agricultural community, kept 160,000 pounds of delicious produce out of landfills and donated an additional 54,000 pounds of produce to local food banks. We’ve served over 700 customers in the Triangle, empowering them to integrate more fruits and vegetables into their diets and to get excited about choosing ugly produce over “perfect” grocery store alternatives.

Why is Durham a good fit for your company?
I had already developed an initial customer base and supply chain in the Raleigh-Durham area. I’ve found the Triangle to be a terrific place to operate my business. When I launched Ungraded Produce, I was initially concerned that people would assume ugly produce was old and inferior and would be discouraged from trying out our service. However, I’ve found that the average consumer in the Triangle is environmentally and socially conscious. They have embraced the ugly produce concept with great enthusiasm. I’m optimistic that residents in other parts of the state will follow in their lead as we increase our presence throughout North Carolina.

photo by Lauren V. Allen

What’s next for Ungraded?
Right now I’m working on raising my next round [of funding] so we can pursue more aggressive marketing, hiring and supply chain development strategies. Additionally, we’re working on developing a distribution model that will enable us to be able to accept SNAP payment (something we currently can’t do as an online retailer) and make our products more accessible to the food insecure community. We are still focused on building density in the Triangle, but plan to expand to other markets in North Carolina over the next few years.