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Sharing Excess expands Philly success to NYC

By
Tim Linden

Evan Ehlers was a student at Drexel University in 2018 when he conjured up the idea of using his dining hall meal ticket to donate the food he wasn’t going to eat that semester to those in need.

“I would put the food in my car and drive around Center City Philadelphia handing it out,” he said, noting that it gave him a first-hand look at poverty. “For a lot of people, it was the only meal they were going to have that day.”

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Sharing Excess in the Hunts Point Terminal Market in New York City.

That experience caused Ehlers, who was studying entrepreneurship in college, to dive deeper into poverty, its root causes and potential solutions. “Initially, I was only trying to solve my own problem of making use of the leftover meals that I wasn’t going to be able to eat,” he said. “But it snowballed and I started learning a lot of things such as that 38 percent of the food supply is wasted. That was really an astounding statistic.”

With the need to complete one more hands-on internship before graduation, Ehlers’ entrepreneurial mindset kicked into action and he began developing the concept of diverting unused food to those in need as a business proposition. “I became very passionate about the subject and trying to solve that problem,” he said.

He started to build an organization that he called Sharing Excess. The basic concept is perfectly embodied by the company name.

One of his early converts was fellow student Victoria Wilson, who is now operations director for the company. “Evan inspired me,” said Wilson, who noted that the early days of the new company coincided with the start of pandemic. As restaurants were forced to close with virtually no notice, Wilson helped Ehlers drive around Philadelphia rescuing unused food and delivering it to those in need. Sharing Excess also started working with retailers and got more students involved to make sure the food got to those who needed it in a timely manner.

While many produce companies have robust programs to capture unused product and donate it, the logistics are often a very limiting factor.
While many produce companies have robust programs to capture unused
product and donate it, the logistics are often a very limiting factor.

Soon thereafter, the Sharing Excess team discovered that the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market was a consistent source of fresh produce that could not be utilized in normal channels for one reason or another, but was still of good enough quality to be consumed. Of course, to the produce industry it is no secret that lots of edible produce is dumped every day.

Ehlers has learned that while many produce companies have robust programs to capture this unused product and donate it, the logistics are often a very limiting factor. Either potential partners, such as food banks and charitable organizations, can’t use all of the excess or the logistics make it too difficult and expensive to get from where it is to where it is needed. He discovered that the donation process in the Philadelphia market wasn’t happening in an organized fashion. What was really needed, according to Ehlers, was an on-site transfer station. A place where the market operators could drop off their produce and Sharing Excess staff could sort it and make sure the usable produce was distributed to the needy through a network of charitable organizations.

Many of those organizations come to the dedicated space that was donated by the Philly market to pick up the produce or Sharing Excess delivers it. The organization also handles the inedible product. “We are located in Breezeway C,” said Ehlers, noting that it is in the space that the product is sorted, weighed and transferred.

He added that Sharing Excess extensively uses technology to track the food donations from the wholesaler to the receiving charity, which allows for the creation of the documentation needed so the wholesaler can qualify for tax credits. They are also documenting how much waste they are preventing from exiting the market as trash, and how much is that saving market tenants.

While Sharing Excess relies on donations from a myriad of foundations and organizations that fund such activity, Ehlers wants to create a revenue stream that makes his operation more sustainable. He believes that the savings in disposal costs offers an opportunity to create income. He noted that since it began operations in Philadelphia, Sharing Excess has diverted 20 million pounds of produce from the dumpster and landfills to people in the community in need.

“Our goal is to improve our value and eventually be paid as a service provider for reducing waste and managing a company’s donation plan,” he said.

Ehlers also wants to export this idea to other markets. Sharing Excess is already operating in the Hunts Point Terminal Market in New York City with the aid of S. Katzman Produce, a fourth-generation New York wholesaler.

Stefanie Katzman, who is a 23-year produce industry veteran and the executive vice president of the family business, explained that Katzman has given Sharing Excess the space to operate under its roof in Hunts Point and has also provided logistics equipment. “Sharing Excess reached out and when I got in contact with Evan and discussed what they were doing, I was so inspired I asked how we could get involved,” she said.

After visiting the Philadelphia operation, Katzman realized that the two markets are built differently and a New York operation would have different needs.

“Our first challenge was to find space in which they could operate,” she said. “Philly has a lot of common area where they could carve out space, we couldn’t find a similar space in New York,” she said. “We ended up dedicating about a half of one of our units to the program. They have floor space and we are also letting them use a storage van that has the capacity for 26 pallets of product,” she said. “We are hoping to make this a permanent situation.”

As far as how Katzman Produce operates, Stefanie Katzman said it works very hard to find a home for each box of produce that comes into its warehouse as it works with high end retailers, mom and pop stores, bakeries, restaurants and other wholesalers. But at the end of the day, there is also waste.

The company has worked with food banks and local charities, but she said Sharing Excess is a great fit for their operation. They can take the excess product, rework it if necessary and handle distribution to where it will do the most good.

“They haven’t replaced our previous charitable partners but added another option for us,” she said. “They have helped us streamline our process.”

She believes it is a workable model that can be exported to other produce distribution centers such as other terminal markets. Apprised of Ehlers concept of creating a sustainable revenue stream as a service provider, Katzman thought about it for a few minutes and said, “I kinda like it, especially in our industry. I think it could work.”

She noted that for many of the smaller wholesalers figuring out their waste stream issues and donation programs can be a big challenge and a challenge that comes with costs. She added that there is no doubt there is a lot of food waste in the United States and she is all for figuring out how to reduce that while also helping other people.

If a company can turn it into business that’s all the better.

Tim Linden

Tim Linden

About Tim Linden  |  email

Tim Linden grew up in a produce family as both his father and grandfather spent their business careers on the wholesale terminal markets in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Tim graduated from San Diego State University in 1974 with a degree in journalism. Shortly thereafter he began his career at The Packer where he stayed for eight years, leaving in 1983 to join Western Growers as editor of its monthly magazine. In 1986, Tim launched Champ Publishing as an agricultural publishing specialty company.

Today he is a contract publisher for several trade associations and writes extensively on all aspects of the produce business. He began writing for The Produce News in 1997, and currently wears the title of Editor at Large.

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