By Courtney Tellefsen
About a decade ago, I really started to pay attention to where my food came from. As a wife and mom of two young kids, I wanted my family to be healthy and to do what I could to support local farmers.
I read books by Michael Pollan, went to the farmer's market every weekend and even spent $600 to join a crop share program. It felt great to care, but a few months into a weekly routine of picking up our regular bushel of CSA produce, caring started to feel like a lot of work. Between swimming lessons and family vacations, we couldn't always get there to pick up our food. At the end of the season, that $600 investment didn't feel entirely worth it. I knew there must be an easier way.
I thought, what if buying locally grown food could happen online, with a box of produce showing up at your front door just a few days later? On an impulse, I sent out an email with my idea. I had 25 people respond before I had figured out how I was going to pull it off. About a week later, I wandered over to the farmer's market to buy crops on behalf of 25 families - and The Produce Box was born.
Courtney Tellefsen (LEFT) with Produce Box employees. Tellefsen has used the company's Facebook Page to hire more community coordinators as the business expands.
For $24, people could order a box full of fruits and vegetables from North Carolina farmers every week, and I would deliver it to their door. But what started with 25 families grew to 200 by the end of that first summer, and I began to pay some of my friends to make the deliveries for me. We started with 400 members the second year and ended with 1,000. By the end of our third year, we grew to 3,500 members, and then to 5,000. I couldn't believe it.
Our network of farmers was growing too. My business partner and crop coordinator Kevin O'Connell would place orders with different farms all over the region, buying food to fill the boxes we would pack and deliver the next day.
One week, we committed to buy 3,000 pints of blueberries from a local farmer, but the day before we needed to pack our boxes, he called to say it was pouring rain. He and his crew were stuck inside a shed. You can't pick blueberries when they're wet. When you pack them, moisture and heat denigrates the fruit. He had to wait until it stopped raining. Meanwhile, we were due to pack our boxes the next morning. Kevin and I sat across from one another at the desk for three hours, agonizing over what we were going to do.
Boxes are packed with local produce before delivery.
Finally, we decided to buy the blueberries from another farmer. We just couldn't disappoint 3,000 customers. But, we also decided we couldn't go back on our commitment to purchase from the original farmer. Our company could accept the cost of the loss more than he could. So we bought both.
At first, I thought we'd just make blueberry jam and sell it over the next two years. But then, I had an idea. What if we could just ask people to buy them? We had 5,000 members at that point, and decided to post about our surplus berries on Facebook.
I sold 3,000 pints of blueberries in less than three hours that day.
That's when I realized The Produce Box could really be a force for change. We were changing the conversation about food in our community, and our Facebook Page was an extension of that dialogue. Today, our members gather there to share their stories and lessons about the nutritious foods on their dinner tables.
Vernon Britt, a local North Carolina farmer, grows potatoes and onions for Produce Box customers.
That's why I worked hard to figure out how we could harness our network of people, and work as a community to help others in it. We created the Farm Fund, a program that gives financial aid to our farmers during the off-season, and donated more than $20,000 to our farm-partners who needed to make repairs and capital improvements to their farms.
This year we began our season with 8,200 members, and soon, we'll be able to offer reduced prices to low-income families so that every family has the option to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. Thanks to a network of dedicated moms, we're making an impact, proof that food really does bring people together, even online.