Every Wednesday and Thursday, The Produce Project sets up to pass out pre-ordered shares of fresh organic produce, bought from local farmers at the NC State Farmers Market. Leftovers are donated to a number of partner organizations, including Food Not Bombs. NC State’s own Mike Shumake founded the 501(c)(3) operation in 2015 and it’s been going strong ever since, donating between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds of produce each week.
Shumake’s wife is allergic to gluten and corn so everything they eat needs to be made from scratch, which led Shumake to visit the NC State Farmers Market in search of groceries.
“I turned to the Farmers Market and discovered the bulk and wholesale building,” Shumake said.” The first thing I bought, I remember, was a case of tomatoes. It was like 60 or 70 tomatoes in a box and I brought it home all proud of myself.”
Buying in bulk can lead to acquiring too much, and despite the varied uses for produce, to make things work, some innovation was required.
“When you got 60 to 70 tomatoes laid out on the counter in front of you, that’s entirely too many tomatoes,” Shumake said. “There’s no amount of spaghetti or sandwiches you could serve to get through that many tomatoes… [so I] put it on social media, and I said ‘Alright guys, let's get 10 people [who] threw 15 bucks in apiece. And instead of getting one thing of tomatoes, I'll get seven or eight different things and split it up.”
Shumake spent the next few months playing around with the logistics until The Produce Project was officially born. Now anyone can order a share for just $18, take what they think they’ll use and leave the rest to be donated to a family in need. The cost of a share is less than a third of what it would be if the same amount of produce was bought at the grocery store and includes over 10 different pieces of produce.
Maddie Laughlin, a second-year studying environmental science, works for The Produce Project as their Customer Relations Coordinator. Part of their pay includes a share each week and between Laughlin and their roommates, it always gets eaten.
“I haven’t always been a good cook,” Laughlin said. “Learning how to scale up whatever I’m cooking has been good… there’s usually a really good variety of stuff and it changes every week.”
The Produce Project has recently added a new location for handing out shares, the John Chavis Memorial Park in southeast Raleigh.
“It’s been good to learn more of the history of Raleigh, especially in my environmental justice classes,” Laughlin said. “That’s helped me frame how we’re operating out of Chavis.”
Shumake has always been passionate about activism and said he’s really enjoyed working somewhere where he feels like he’s doing something good and creating some alternatives to grocery stores.
“Oh man, I just want to donate more,” Shumake said. “That's our goal, our metric for success is how many pounds of produce we donate, and as long as that keeps increasing, that's going to keep me happy… but I think that as long as we keep our eyes on this simple goal, and that is the goal of increasing our donations and increasing the access to fresh, healthy produce.”
NC State students looking for an easy way to contribute to the community should order a share from The Produce Project or look into their volunteering program. Support a good cause and get some great produce too.