Adam Kay wanders through a University of St. Thomas garden on a bright summer day, occasionally pulling dead leaves from plants.
“The pumpkins are dying,” says Kay, co-founder and director of BrightSide Produce, gesturing to the withering vines.
However, the garden is bursting with vegetables. Green beans dangle in crowded bushes, chives grow like grass with their round purple flowers on tall stems, and basil leaves wave gaily in the summer breeze.
Despite the pumpkins, Kay is delighted by this year’s yield, and that of another plot in Wisconsin. A portion of the garden’s produce will ultimately be sold in north and south Minneapolis in areas that have less access to fresh, nutritional fruits and vegetables.
BrightSide Produce launched in 2014 as a partnership between St. Thomas and Community Table, a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs who contribute to local food systems. Outside of the garden, BrightSide’s core operation includes buying fresh fruits and vegetables from wholesalers and partnering with young people — university students and paid local teenagers — to deliver to corner stores throughout the city’s low-income neighborhoods.
“I think that BrightSide is really important in any community it chooses to step into,” said Adam Pruitt, one of the co-founders, “because not only are we providing healthy and affordable produce for low-income communities, but also providing jobs for the younger people within those low-income communities.”
BrightSide’s young people fill its trucks every Saturday with produce and deliver to corner stores, charging store owners affordable prices that cover BrightSide’s costs and supplying neighborhoods that are considered food deserts.
“Corner stores have things that last on the shelf, but they aren’t very good for you,” said Nicole Herrli, business manager of BrightSide Produce and a senior at St. Thomas, “yet [owners of corner stores] can’t afford to buy healthier food.”
Leftover produce is sold to university staff, faculty and students, and those proceeds are given to BrightSide youths.
A portion of the produce grown in St. Thomas’ garden during the summer also is sold at farm stands set up in front of corner stores. Corner stores get 50 percent of the day’s sales.
Food deserts, according to the American Nutrition Association, are typically impoverished parts of the country that lack “fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods. ... This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers markets and healthy food providers.”
A U.S. Department of Agricultural map identifies portions of north and south Minneapolis as food deserts. According to a 2017 Feeding America report, 11.3 percent of Hennepin County residents were food insecure in 2015. The USDA defines food insecurity as a range from reduced quality and variety of food to going without meals.
BrightSide Produce aims to bridge that gap.
The idea for BrightSide Produce came to Kay in 2013. He was listening to a story on the radio about a program having difficulties getting fruits and vegetables to corner stores. Kay, a biology professor at St. Thomas, was conducting a research project in one of the greenhouses.
“[I realized] we were growing all these vegetables in this greenhouse,” he said. “So why don’t we just get these vegetables into the program?”
When Kay was introduced to two young, budding entrepreneurs from north Minneapolis, Pruitt and Demetria Fuller, who wanted to make a difference in the community, they spent three to four months brainstorming. Eventually it led to the establishment of BrightSide Produce.
Initially, corner store owners were reluctant to get involved with BrightSide. Herrli, the business manager, said BrightSide had to prove that it wasn’t trying to cut into corner store owners’ profits. That meant staying persistent until finally one corner store owner agreed to buy BrightSide’s products, starting a chain reaction. Today, it supplies more than 20 corner stores, and the shop owners are grateful for deliveries, Herrli said.
“Just seeing the way people light up when we are out there is amazing,” Herrli said.
Due to its small size, BrightSide Produce doesn’t command the lowest prices from wholesale distributors, Kay said. However, same-store sales have increased 30 percent from last year, he said.
In early June, BrightSide Produce expanded to San Diego. Kay has big plans for BrightSide. He hopes to involve more people, attract a higher demand for fresh produce and expand further into lower-income communities.
“There are [about] 250 stores in Minneapolis,” Kay said. “We could provide this exceptional service to all of them and make sure that there are enough fruits and vegetables for all of them. That really ends that whole idea of food insecurity when it’s available to everybody.”