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Philadelphia was wasting tons of produce. Then a scrappy startup stepped in

A lot happens under the soaring ceiling of the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, a cathedral of fruits and vegetables. Roughly $1.5 billion’s worth of produce passes through this 550,000-square-foot cooler in a year, from everyday items like avocados and oranges to relative rarities like green almonds and quenepas. Trucks start unloading in the wee hours of the morning, bringing shipments from growers of all sizes, locally and abroad, destined for supermarkets, restaurants, and bodegas in Philly and beyond.

With all that food, it’s inevitable some will go to waste. Produce might not meet a buyer’s size/shape/color expectations, or someone overstocked and couldn’t off-load the excess, or boxes in a pallet were damaged. In many instances, the produce is perfectly good, but the vendor can’t find a home for it fast enough, so it winds up in the trash — much like an overlooked bag of arugula in your home refrigerator.

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Food waste on an individual scale is one thing. Here, it adds up to millions of pounds per year. So when Philly food-rescue start-up Sharing Excess called to ask if the market had any surplus in May 2021, opportunity was ripe for the picking.

Sharing Excess, founded in 2018 by then-Drexel student Evan Ehlers, is built around the strategy of meeting donors where they are — a valuable trait in a field where resources are often scarce. In four years, the nonprofit has redistributed 11 million pounds of food. More than half of that is thanks to one year’s work with the Wholesale Produce Market.

Searching for solutions

Early on in the pandemic, the USDA bolstered food banks’ inventories and budgets to alleviate a spike in food hardship. Extra government support started to taper off in mid-2021, even as hungry families’ needs remained high. That prompted nonprofits like Sharing Excess to search for new donors and partners, which is how Alex Havertine, Sharing Excess’ director of food sourcing, first came to call the Wholesale Produce Market.

The market has been working in recent years to decrease what it sends to the landfill — ideally it would be a zero-waste facility, according to general manager Mark Smith — but the scale of the task was challenging. Pre-pandemic, Philabundance sent a team once a week to sort through and redistribute donations. It was a start, but it underscored the need for a fundamentally different approach, Smith said.

“We were still throwing away hundreds and hundreds of tons of usable produce a month,” Smith said. “The real question became, how do we … set up that operation to achieve the goal of getting every usable piece of food out of that building before it goes bad?”

Philly’s major hunger-relief outfits, Philabundance and Share Food Program, each deliver millions of meals a month, which leaves little bandwidth for catering to individual donors — even those as big as the market.

“We have over 600 agency partners on our route, it’s preplanned. That’s thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds of food being distributed,” said Philabundance director of communications Chelsea Short. “If we have a retail donor who’s like, ‘I’ve got 50 pounds or 5,000 pounds of cabbage, can you pick it up now?’ We can’t always do that because our trucks are already en route.”

And so a scrappy, flexible start-up like Sharing Excess was the perfect partner for the market: Not only was the team willing to set up shop in the market full-time, they would also work to convince its long-running vendors to try something new.

Winning over vendors

Sharing Excess moved into the market in July 2021. “We started out with just some plastic tables and basically a group of college kids sorting through boxes,” Ehlers said. While operations got up and running, Havertine began a regular routine of walking the market and getting to know vendors — an exercise that proved to be crucial.

Donating perfectly good but unsellable food rather than throwing it out seems like a no-brainer, but change is hard, and many of the market’s vendors have been there for generations. And much like composting at home can be a bit of a hassle, designating some produce as excess and then shuttling it over to another part of the warehouse takes time.

So Sharing Excess needed to win over vendors, which Havertine did through face time. It was tough-going at first, but she’s become “buds” with various workers on the market floor. “Now part of their daily routine is bringing food over to us,” she said.

But the nonprofit had another hook to bring vendors aboard: It would save everyone money. Each pallet sent to the market’s internal waste management system costs a vendor $80. Sharing Excess would take that trash off their hands, sort through it, and likely yield them a tax deduction instead.

Soon enough, they had so many pallets coming their way, they needed to move into a breezeway of their own.

Reaping the rewards

In a year, Sharing Excess has diverted more than 50% of the market’s waste from the landfill, resulting in about $300,000 in savings, Ehlers estimates. That figure pales in comparison to the partnership’s impact on hunger relief. Between July 2021 and September 2022, they sent 6.1 million pounds of produce to Philly-area food banks. Around 90% of what vendors give is pristine enough to donate. (Even produce past its prime goes to good use: It’s used for chicken feed instead.)

Five days a week, a crew of Sharing Excess staffers and volunteers starts accepting donations at 7 a.m. Forklift operators from various vendors whiz in and out of their delivery bay, dropping off pallets of avocados, bananas, lettuce, cherries, and more. Sharing Excess inventories what it receives and issues receipts to vendors. They also track the data in their own app — something they hope vendors might implement one day “so they can better realize when they have excess,” Ehlers said.

The team assesses the condition of the produce, then they consult with folks at Share and Philabundance, essentially taking the organizations’ daily orders. They’ll prep and palletize those donations for the day, with a shared goal that all the food distributed is consumed within the next 24 to 72 hours. By 11 a.m., trucks arrive to pick up the donations, followed by cars and vans from smaller food banks and pantries.

In return for these services, the Wholesale Produce Market, Philabundance, and Share contribute money to help Sharing Excess cover its expenses. (Sharing Excess has 25 staffers and pays entry-level employees between $17 and $20 an hour.)

“We probably pay Sharing Excess upwards of $100,000 a year,” said Share’s executive director George Matysik. “But … we’re not then having to tie up our [loading] docks with product that’s not good, tie up our refrigerators with product that’s not good, then having to pay on the back end to get that composted. It saves us time. It saves us money. And it helps build a partnership and gives resources to a young, upstart organization that is clearly hungry for this work and clearly wants to make a difference. It’s a win-win.”

Looking ahead

The Sharing Excess team sometimes loads up its own truck and drives to its West Philly warehouse. They’ll give the goods away at their free food fests, set up to look just like a farmers markets. The nonprofit would like to destigmatize free food — something Ehlers and his team hope to tackle on a larger scale with time. He envisions a future where its warehouse functions as a sorting operation in the back and a pay-what-you-can grocery store in the front.

“All of this produce that you see here can be easily merchandized in ways where people can walk in, get what they like, and go through a seamless checkout process where it feels like you’re in a grocery store, but it’s 100% optional for you to pay,” Ehlers said.

It’s one facet of Sharing Excess’ agenda, which blossomed out of Ehlers’ mission to give away the extra meal swipes he had left on his Drexel account at the end of his junior year.

Since then, the nonprofit has developed a high-tech, high-energy approach to food rescue. The partnership at the market is just one example. Sharing Excess’ food-sourcing team has experimented with finding and transporting donations remotely in North Carolina and Texas. It tracks various data points in a free, open-source app Ehlers hopes other food-rescue organizations will use to help onboard more donors.

These efforts have made Sharing Excess what Matysik terms a “good disruptor.” Whatever ideas prove successful in Philly, they hope to spread elsewhere.

“We’re not jumping out there trying to start in every city right away,” Ehlers said, “but we do know that there is room for us to fill in the margins in a lot of places.”

___ ©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit at inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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This story was originally published September 28, 2022 1:04 PM.

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