It’s 9 p.m. on a Thursday night, and Hungry Harvest CEO and founder Evan Lutz is at his Baltimore home about to make pad thai. He looks at the crate in front of him and begins to unpack — carrots from Shlagel Farms, cabbage from L&M Farms, cilantro from Coosemans DC. The carrots are a bit crooked, the cabbage is lopsided, and the cilantro is a deeper hue of green than your average grocery find. But for Lutz, these ingredients serve as the perfect foundation for his post-work plate — and for the business he started more than three years ago.
It’s called Hungry Harvest, and its mission is simple: to recover produce no matter where it’s grown, how it’s grown, and what it looks like, and to distribute, donate, and sell those items to those who want them. “Our core responsibility as a company is to reeducate consumers and remind them that a carrot with a bend or twist in it tastes the exact same as one that’s straight, and an apple that has a funny shape to it is just as good as the identically shaped ones you see lined up at the grocery store,” Lutz says.
The conversation has proven to be a necessary one for his team to have with their community base because of one increasingly used term, in particular: “ugly produce.” “One in five fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. turn out to be too big, too small, of a funny shape, or slightly off in color, which means that they don’t meet the arbitrary specifications of retailers,” explains Lutz. “That means that in the stores you’re only seeing the top 30 percent of the most premium looking, aesthetically pleasing produce — but it doesn’t taste any different than ugly produce, and it creates a lot of waste.”
How much waste, exactly?
“20 billion pounds of food goes uneaten every year,” Lutz notes.
It was an issue that the 25-year-old first encountered as a senior at the University of Maryland, where he began volunteering with his campus chapter of the Food Recovery Network — a student-led organization dedicated to fighting waste and hunger by recovering perishable foods from campus dining halls and donating it to people in need. When a local farmer approached him with the idea of actually selling the food, Lutz — an entrepreneurship major — didn’t have to think twice.
“I set up a farm stand in the basement of my dorm and charged five dollars for five pounds of the surplus produce from this one farmer, and it exploded,” he says. Six months, two interns, three volunteers, and 500 customers later, Lutz turned that success into a home delivery model. Consumers choose from a variety of harvest box options, which Lutz’s team delivers by car within just hours of being packed — ensuring farm fresh produce that is priced at 20 to 40 percent of grocery store goods.
With more than three years of the business under his belt, Lutz has already seen significant growth — Hungry Harvest now serves a community of more than 30,000 across five cities, a number that the team hopes to increase to 35 in the next five years. They also went from working with one farmer to hundreds — a jump that fulfills another one of the company’s biggest goals.
“The saying goes that a good year for a farmer is one where they’re able to break even, and a lot of their profit and loss depends on the climate and a surplus of product grown across the country at any given time,” says Lutz. “For us to tell them we’ll buy their product that doesn’t meet the retail specifications, they know they can reduce their loss and make a good percentage on whatever costs they have — and we know that it won’t just stay sitting on the fields and go to waste.”
It also won’t leave people hungry. “We believe that in this country, everybody has the right to healthy, affordable, and accessible produce,” says Lutz. As such, the team formed Produce in a Snap, a partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools to bring fresh produce to food deserts and sell it at a significantly reduced cost to promote healthy eating and hunger relief. The goal? To allow food-insecure families and individuals to stretch their food budgets to thereby acquire nutrient-rich foods on a consistent basis.
Keeping those practices sustainable has become a priority for Lutz and his team, who last year alone sold upwards of 100,000 pounds of produce to more than 2,000 residents of its city’s food deserts. “Donating food won’t solve hunger,” says Lutz. “Hunger isn’t a charity problem, it’s a business problem — it’s supply not meeting demands.”
And with an increasingly growing supply at costs that are cheaper than ever, there’s more than enough to go around — if we’re wise about it. “By 2050 we’re going to have 10 billion people on the planet, but how will we feed them if we’re wasting 40 percent of everything we grow and if 20 percent of our fresh water is used for food we’re not eating?” says Lutz. “I was raised in a household where you eat everything on your plate, and that’s what I hope we can help remind people of with Hungry Harvest — that we need to value our food, appreciate where it came from, and remember its effect on us and the world in which we live.”