Ungraded Produce: an oasis in the Durham food desert

Courtney Bell, one of the co-founders, preparing to package produce for delivery. (Staff photo by Vanessa Luo/UNC)

Produce is a tough industry.

Ungraded Produce was the winner of Duke’s 18th Annual Startup Challenge earlier this year. It was co-founded by 22-year-old Courtney Bell from Rockville, Md. and 22-year-old Saranya (Anya) Ranganathan from Skillman, N.J.

Bell and Ranganathan are Duke graduates from the class of 2017.

Ungraded Produce is an online service that delivers fruits, vegetables or mixtures of both within the Triangle. Ungraded Produce offers free shipping. Subscribers can schedule deliveries for every week or every two weeks. Subscribers can also choose the weight of their produce, ranging from five to 15 pounds.

Ungraded Produce delivers within the Triangle area. They offer free delivery in NC Triangle Area, inclding Durham, Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Cary. (Staff photo by Vanessa Luo/UNC)

The company was conceptualized in 2015 when by then-sophomores Bell and Ranganathan, who noticed that the demand for fresh produce outweighs the supply in the Triangle. As an undergrad, Bell prioritized healthy food and eating, but quickly noticed how difficult it was to purchase produce.

And after long months of planning, Ungraded Produce was launched in September 2016. Today, it’s thriving with more than 100 subscribers.

The delivery service was named in response to food grading, the inspection and sorting of foods by quality, freshness and market value. Food grading, however, also tends to sort out produce that are not visually appealing.

Ungraded Produce, as the name suggests, mostly source such produce, dubbed as “ugly produce,” which is defined by Ungraded Produce as “funny-looking fruit and vegetables [that] deserve [s] our love” and retains the same nutritional value as its “normal” counterparts.

Bell said, “Growing ‘ugly produce’ is part of nature.”

So Ungraded Produce’s slogan reads, “All shapes are welcome.” And the slogan goes hand in hand with its logo, an irregular trapezoid encompassing the name “Ungraded Produce.”

The complanies goods are mostly from local North Carolina farms and excess wholesale fruit. From apples to beans, all the produce are inspected before purchasing and packaging, and ice packs are placed in the boxes before delivery to ensure the produce remain in high quality.

Ungraded Produce mostly serves NCCU and Duke students, families and young professionals. They help subscribers save time and money by offering direct-door deliveries. Subscribers also receive texts when the produce are en route to their home and when the produce was dropped off.

Bell described the convenience of Ungraded Produce from its purchase, inspection and delivery system, “We’re not reinventing the wheel,” she said. “We’re just patching a hole in the wheel.”

As a recent startup, Ungraded Produce has encountered its shares of obstacles. For example, although vegetables are available year-round, fruit is more difficult to obtain when they’re not in season. As produce, fruit and vegetable are also at risk of spoiling before delivery date. Even when fruit are purchased before they are ripe, some subscribers may express dissatisfaction at receiving fruit they can’t eat.

Due to unexpected circumstances, such as changing temperatures and weather, Ungraded Produce always over-orders produce to compensate. As a result, it always ends up with more fruit than needed. As a solution, some are offered to subscribers, while others are donated to Healing with CAARE and Durham Tech Community College food pantry – to name a few.

Additionally, Bell expresses frustration that “ugly produce” has been more difficult to obtain than expected. Sizable farms tend to have a system to rid of “ugly produce.” As Ungraded Produce is relatively small, farms are often reluctant to break away from their routine and do business with Ungraded Produce.

Therefore, Bell hopes to expand Ungraded Produce’s operations to one day become a business with which large farms wouldn’t hesitate to work.

The Ungraded Produce warehouse is located at 902 N Mangum St.

For more information, visit Ungraded Produce’s website, Facebook and subscription page.

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