One Man’s Trash, Another Man’s Social Enterprise Hungry Harvest uses recovered produce to feed customers, those in need

From left: Jon Heiber, chief strategy officer Mark Leybengrub, Emily Quade, co-founder and CEO Evan Lutz and Angela Parreco of Hungry Harvest are pictured at a free  farmers market, where residents of low-income neighborhoods can take home as  much produce as they want.

From left: Jon Heiber, chief strategy officer Mark Leybengrub, Emily Quade, co-founder and CEO Evan Lutz and Angela Parreco of Hungry Harvest are pictured at a free farmers market, where residents of low-income neighborhoods can take home as much produce as they want.

When Evan Lutz was a business major at the University of Maryland, College Park, something just didn’t add up to him.

While focusing on the issue of food justice, he learned that a third of the fresh water used in the United States is used on produce that ultimately goes to waste; that one in five apples ends up being thrown out and one in six Americans are food insecure.

Looking to go into social enterprise, the Pikesville native started working with the Food Recovery Network, which donated leftover food from the university’s dining halls to soup kitchens, shelters and food banks. When Lutz and that organization’s executive director were approached by a produce supplier who did something similar, he started the Recovered Food CSA, in which he set up a farm stand on campus once a week and sold five pounds of produce for $5 and made a pound-for-pound donation to those in need.

“I was raised on the premise that a lot of people aren’t as fortunate as us,” Lutz, 23, said. “As long as I can remember, I wanted to become a social entrepreneur.”

Recovered Food CSA would become Hungry Harvest, the Columbia-based startup that Lutz founded in May 2014 just after graduation. The organization sells “surplus” or “recovered” produce — produce that doesn’t meet grocery stores’ high standards — in CSAs (community supported agriculture) that are delivered to customers from Maryland to Northern Virginia once a week. For every bag, Hungry Harvest donates 1.2 pounds to hungry individuals.

“If you had a bag and I didn’t tell you it was surplus, you would have no idea,” Lutz said. “Grocery stores have ridiculously high standards.”

An apple could be too big or too small, or misshapen, or the farmer grew too many to sell. An eggplant might have an oddly-shaped nose. Broccoli might be oversized.

Hungry Harvest has recovered about 270,000 pounds of produce from going to waste and donated about 100,000 pounds to the hungry.

The produce comes from local farmers and wholesalers year-round and is delivered to about 600 customers in Baltimore City and county, Washington, D.C., Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Howard County and Northern Virginia. There are eight CSA options: the mini harvest, full harvest and super harvest, all of which are offered in organic CSAs and two fruit CSAs.

In addition to its donations of one meal per bag sold, Hungry Harvest has held two free farmers markets, where the company works with different organizations to bring 3,000 pounds of produce to low-income neighborhoods and gives it away for free to area residents, who can take home as much as they want.

On Nov. 21, a free farmers market was held in West Baltimore in conjunction with the No Boundaries Coalition. Tiffany Welch, the organization’s healthy food access and food justice organizer, is working in six communities surrounding the Penn North area to bring the neighborhood more consistent access to produce. The overall area the coalition works in has a ratio of liquor stores to convenience stores of 10:1, and that jumps to 16:1 in Sandtown-Winchester. Welch said she is working with the convenience stores to offer produce. Although the area has a public market, it is the only of Baltimore’s six public markets that doesn’t consistently have fresh produce, meat or fish, Welch said.

The Nov. 21 market was free to those who live in No Boundaries’ main catchment area, and $3 for others.

“We wanted to do something special right before Thanksgiving,” Welch said about the free farmers market. “The response has been overwhelming.”

For the company’s other employees, the social enterprise aspect is a major plus to working at the startup.

Chief strategy officer Mark Leybengrub, who met Lutz in college, said he always thought Hungry Harvest was a great idea, but didn’t know if it would be sustainable.
He was working in public sector consulting for IBM prior to Hungry Harvest, and said it was a “paradigm shift” in mentality going from a corporation to a startup.

“I think what really enticed me was that [Lutz] really convinced me that this could be a sustainable business model with social value at its core,” Leybenbrug said.

Growing up in Owings Mills and Pikesville, Leybengrub isn’t sure if his Jewish upbringing specifically influenced his decision to join Hungry Harvest, but he said the values of empathy and empathizing with those less fortunate are definitely ingrained in him. He remembers Rabbi Yehuda Oratz at Beth Tfiloh talking about the Jewish laws that govern giving a percentage of what one makes to charity.

Kevin Kresloff, Hungry Harvest’s director of operations, found some unexpected friends through his work. Every Saturday, he picks up five men from the Montgomery County Coalition for the homeless men’s shelter so they can assemble that week’s deliveries. The men have all been recently released from jail.

“I was a bit hesitant in that being a Jewish boy growing up in Montgomery County, I didn’t have much experience with that,” Kresloff said. “I’ve personally developed almost a best-friend relationship with the guys.” He said they’re grateful for the opportunity to work and learn skills they can take elsewhere.

Hungry Harvest is currently working to improve its customer experience and wants to raise $150,000 by the end of the year. Lutz hopes to launch in Philadelphia or New York sometime in the middle of 2016.

“We’re doing well and it’s a lot of fun,” Lutz said.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

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