The Produce Project ensures that fresh, local produce goes to good use.
Several years ago, while browsing the local farmers’ market for dinner inspiration, Mike Shumake accidentally wandered into the wholesale building.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store. Sixty tomatoes were $10,” he says. “The problem is, when you get home with 60 tomatoes you realize you don’t need—nobody needs—60 tomatoes.”
Shumake began making regular runs to the farmers’ market, recruited some friends to split the costs and the bounty, and the casual collective grew into what is now The Produce Project.
The Produce Project is an all-volunteer nonprofit that aims to make fresh produce affordable for Raleigh residents. Customers can buy a single share for Wednesday or Thursday pickup as late as the afternoon before, or they can become subscribers to pick up a box each week. The price—$18—is constant, but the contents of the box, available in regular and keto-friendly, change by day and with the seasons.
This is how it works: Customers order online ahead of time or as part of an ongoing subscription. Then, Shumake picks up fruits and vegetables in bulk at the State Farmers’ Market and a small team of volunteers divides the haul into individual boxes for pickup. To collect their share, customers bring their own bags and boxes and enter at the side of the building at 1000 Brookside Drive (to the left of the tattoo shop) and walk up to the Dutch door, where they are handed a box loaded with produce. They take what they want and leave the rest, which becomes The Produce Project’s “profit.”
“When you buy a tomato, you’re paying for the tomato that you’re buying, plus the three or four tomatoes that are hiding in the back of the store…there is always waste,” Shumake says. As he buys only enough to fill the boxes that have been ordered, there is no waste in the traditional sense; however, the nonprofit donates produce that customers don’t have room to take home. Customers can also purchase a share for donation at a reduced price of $15, and subscribers can get a weekly share plus a donated share for a total of $30.
In the first three months of this year, the organization donated more than 9,000 pounds of produce to the Resource Exchange Commission, which helps wounded veterans; the Murphey School senior housing; and Love Wins Community Engagement Center, which serves those experiencing homelessness.
A recent box held a mini watermelon, two clementines, two onions, five cloves of garlic, three jalapenos, one poblano pepper, a green pepper, two avocados, two small mangoes, two peaches, three large carrots, a couple of yellow squash, a package of locally grown lettuce, a bundle of asparagus, a bunch of kale, a bouquet of cilantro and a 10-pound bag of potatoes.
“Going to the grocery store is like an errand, [but] I’ve heard from the parents that when they show up here on pickup day, it’s like an unboxing,” Shumake says. “They don’t know what they’re going to get. It’s like Christmas…I had someone say to me the other day that it’s like Iron Chef in their house. They get home with the kids and the ingredients are all there and they’re like, ‘What are we going to make next?’”
Shumake retired early after an award-winning career as a teacher and several lucrative years working as an education consultant. He is thrilled to see how the community has embraced The Produce Project, but he has even bigger plans for the nonprofit. Ultimately, he wants to apply the same model in local schools, building a business as an integrated program to teach entrepreneurship, math, logistics, nutrition science, teamwork, problem-solving, marketing and more, all while providing healthy food to those who may not otherwise have access to fresh produce.
“I believe that people measure success in this country with the wrong metric—we measure success by the amount of money that we pull in,” Shumake says. “There is a finite thing we can measure success by and that is the number of breaths we take. The question is, what do we do with them? For me, it’s helping others [and] helping the community.”
For more information or to purchase a subscription, visit produceproject.org.