Howard start-up targets food waste

Amanda Yeager
Contact ReporterHoward County Times/Columbia Flier

The peaches, peppers and tomatoes waiting to be sorted on a recent Saturday at Hungry Harvest's Jessup warehouse all had one thing in common: they would never make it to the shelf of a supermarket.

Though perfectly fresh and edible, most of the produce the company buys has imperfections that would make it unmarketable by the strict aesthetic standards of many grocery stores.

That leads to a lot of waste. The United States Department of Agriculture reported last year that nearly one-third of the food supply in the nation, or 133 billion pounds, wasn't consumed in 2010. The result was an estimated economic loss of $161.6 billion, according to the report.

Hungry Harvest's mission is to find a market for these fruit and vegetable rejects – though the average consumer probably couldn't even spot the difference, says CEO and co-founder Evan Lutz.

"If I didn't tell you it was surplus food, you'd have no idea," he said.

Lutz, a 2014 graduate of the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, started Hungry Harvest with fellow Maryland alum John Zamora last year. The company is headquartered at the Conscious Venture Lab, an incubator for socially conscious businesses sponsored by the Howard County Economic Development Authority's Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship.

Hungry Harvest buys surplus produce from farms and wholesalers and then packs it into bags that are delivered each week to subscribers. The bags, which come in three different sizes, cost between $15 and $35 a week; the company also is rolling out an all-organic option.

A regular-sized bag typically includes a leafy green, three fruits and three vegetables.

During the growing season – late spring through late fall – most of the produce comes from farms in the Mid-Atlantic. The company's website lists farms in Waldorf, Churchville and Clinton, Md., as well as Adams County, Pa., as suppliers.

The rest of the year, Hungry Harvest gets its produce from farther afield, though still from farms and suppliers who can't sell it elsewhere. "It would have gone to waste otherwise," said Lutz.

Whatever is left over is donated to local food banks, including Martha's Table, Our Daily Bread and the Capital Area Food Bank. A few times a year, Hungry Harvest coordinates with local non-profits to set up a farmers' market where low-income families can collect free produce.

Since getting its start in June 2014, the company has grown: Hungry Harvest now has four full-time employees and some 600 customers in the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore metropolitan regions. About 5,000 pounds of food passes through its warehouse every week, according to Operations Manager Kevin Kresloff.

Kresloff, who graduated from the University of Maryland this year and is childhood friends with Zamora, coordinates every week with farmers and wholesalers to see what produce they have in abundance.

"They let me know what is available, what they're piling up on, and I try to incorporate as much as I can in our bags while still keeping a good variety at the same time," he said.

The food is then bagged in the company's Jessup warehouse, which is located in a complex with several food wholesalers. Hungry Harvest partners with a Montgomery County homeless shelter for men to hire some of its residents to pack the produce each weekend.

As Hungry Harvest grows, Lutz hopes to expand the company's operations deeper into the Baltimore region.

One in four Baltimore residents lives in a food desert, which is defined as a neighborhood without easy access to fresh foods, according to a study released in June by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Nationwide, 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts, according to a USDA estimate.

Lutz hopes Hungry Harvest can help increase accessibility to healthy foods.

"I'm from Baltimore, and I'm really passionate about increasing the quality of food there," he said.

For more information, visit Hungry Harvest's website

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