According to chef-turned-entrepreneur Donna Merten, more than 20 billion pounds of imperfect produce goes to waste annually. Merten, a mom and a full-time masters of the environment student in the sustainable food systems program, is here to change that—starting right here in Boulder.
"I was raised on a 100-acre farm in Indiana and understand the grit, determination and sacrifice required for farming operations to succeed," said Merten. "My family of fifth-generation farmers taught me how to respect the land and never waste anything."
Merten's idea for her company, Farm Eats Direct (FED), emerged out of a capstone project for her master’s program. Passionate about mitigating food waste, creating access to affordable local food and supporting local farmers, her first iteration was Farmstand, a brick-and-mortar local food hub located in downtown Boulder.
The project acquired $120,000 in investment capital and taught Merten several business lessons. She soon realized that in order to make more of an impact on Boulder's food system infrastructure and provide flexible solutions in the supply chain, she had to pivot Farmstand, a standalone hub, into a mobile one. Thus, the idea of FED was born.
FED's mission is to convert what would otherwise have been food waste into profits via a mobile processing unit. FED hopes to travel to farms, harvest surplus produce and convert it into multiple revenue streams such as meal kits, catering services and a food truck.
"FED travels to a 20-mile radius from its center. The plan is to create a local franchise model to create more local food infrastructures throughout the U.S.," said Merten.
To move her business idea along, Merten decided to compete in CU Boulder's premier, cross-campus entrepreneurial competition, the New Venture Challenge (NVC). She even won NVC's first-ever Sustainability Prize (supported by the President's Sustainable Solutions Challenge), which gave her $2,500 to put toward her business goals. She plans to use the prize money to enhance FED's marketing presence, set up an LLC and purchase initial farm surplus from local farmers.
Competing in NVC forced Merten to bring her business idea to fruition in a condensed time frame, but it was worth the "rigorous" process.
"Winning the Sustainability Prize wasn't only a win for FED, but for all local farmers," said Merten. "I am focused on creating a profitable business because sustainability does not have significant impact if it does not maintain momentum to make future social change."
This is relevant now more than ever. Merten is currently helping those who have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis by preparing and delivering meals to seniors and terminally-ill customers. With help from her classmates in Dr. Jeffrey York's Sustainable Ventures course, she is acquiring excess produce from local farmers and creating a delivery service to neighborhoods within the Boulder Community.