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One of Will Kornegay’s favorite memories aboard the Ripe for Revival Mobile Market Program bus is of a young boy, maybe 6 or 7 years old. The boy stood inside

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One of Will Kornegay’s favorite memories aboard the Ripe for Revival Mobile Market Program bus is of a young boy, maybe 6 or 7 years old. The boy stood inside

One of Will Kornegay’s favorite memories aboard the Ripe for Revival Mobile Market Program bus is of a young boy, maybe 6 or 7 years old. The boy stood inside the vehicle — a pay-what-you-can mini grocery store — surrounded by boxes of broccoli, sweet potatoes, and onions, and tasted his first apple. “He loved it,” Kornegay says. “He tried to eat the core.”

The Mobile Market Program is one piece of a hybrid for-profit and nonprofit business under the Ripe Revival umbrella, but all parts of the organization seek to fulfill the same goal: to bridge the gap between farm excess and food access.

The Ripe for Revival Mobile Market Program brings fresh produce to the public at convenient locations like Station Square in downtown Rocky Mount, where the bus parks from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Tuesday. photograph by Chris Rogers

As founder and CEO Kornegay explains, about 40 percent of farmers’ crops are left to rot in the fields because the produce is deemed unworthy due to size or cosmetic defects. Consumers won’t buy unattractive produce, so it’s not worth the labor cost to pick it.

Meanwhile, families are going hungry. According to Feeding America, North Carolina’s food insecurity rate was 11.8 percent in 2021 — that’s more than 1.2 million people across the state. “It’s a paradox that we have so much food going to waste in one of the nation’s leading agricultural states,” Kornegay says. “We are leaving billions of pounds of food in the fields every year, and millions of people are starving.”

He wants to change that.

three red apples

Kornegay didn’t grow up farming, but he did grow up on a farm. Three of his good friends, brothers Billy and Peyton McDaniel and their cousin Phillip Watson, are the seventh generation in their family to cultivate crops in Whitakers. In his youth, Kornegay spent a lot of time on their family farm. The boys hunted, fished, and roughed it in a rustic cabin on the land.

Late one night when the boys were in high school, Kornegay and Billy were sitting on the tailgate of Billy’s red Chevy Silverado outside the cabin. There’s something about a quiet night and a vast, star-speckled sky that gets you thinking about life. Sitting on that tailgate, the pair agreed that they wanted to start a produce business together one day.

Apples and Will Kornegay driving the Ripe for Revival Mobile Market truck

Growing up, Will Kornegay spent as much time as possible on his friends’ farm after his father was diagnosed with a serious brain disease. “The farm was my escape,” he says. “That’s where I found peace.” photograph by Chris Rogers

Kornegay grew up in a household that appreciated the making and sharing of food. His mother and grandmother both taught home economics. “Food is like a love language for our family,” he says. “So I’ve always understood the importance of what a meal is.” He also valued what he saw at that time as the farm lifestyle: “being in God’s creation, enjoying the outdoors and the quiet and life without worrying,” he says. “I had no idea it was the exact opposite. There’s a lot of stress and a lot of worry.”

The four friends all went to NC State University, where Kornegay majored in business. After graduation, Billy, Peyton, and Phillip returned to the farm, while Kornegay became a commodities broker and traded energy. But he still felt the pull to work in agriculture. So he took a job at Ham Farms, one of the largest sweet potato operations in the country.

The owner grew thousands of acres of the crop, but as is the case with many farmers, much of the produce was unsuitable for sale in grocery stores. So he got creative with his excess sweet potatoes, building a puree plant, a sweet potato vodka distillery, and a dehydration facility. Seeing that gave Kornegay ideas about how to implement similar strategies to help other farmers sell their excess produce while also fighting food insecurity.

Ripe Revival volunteer works the cash box as customers buy produce on the mobile market bus

Volunteers assist shoppers buying meat, dairy, and produce on the mobile market bus. photograph by Chris Rogers

After leaving Ham Farms, Kornegay started Ripe Revival in 2019. He originally made protein gummies, and in 2020 started offering a produce box home-delivery service that partnered with local farmers. To fill the boxes, Kornegay bought farmers’ excess produce, including that of Watson and the McDaniels. The service, which shipped to 50 counties in eastern North Carolina, appealed to customers who were stuck at home during the pandemic, and Kornegay’s business grew rapidly.

As the enterprise expanded, he added a processing and packaging operation with the goal of using 100 percent of his farm partners’ crops. Kornegay chops up farmers’ surplus produce and packages it to be sold fresh, or turns it into juice, or purees it to be used by partners for brewing beers or making products like barbecue sauce.

Ripe Revival Community Operations Manager Chris Pittman and Executive Community Director Kara Wright Cox in the mobile market bus. Bins of fresh tomatoes, potatoes, kale, and carrots

The bus is overseen by Community Operations Manager Chris Pittman and Executive Community Director Kara Wright Cox. photograph by Chris Rogers

In 2020, Kornegay created the nonprofit arm of the organization, Ripe for Revival, serving communities that struggle with food access. The Mobile Market travels to communities across eastern North Carolina, where volunteers hand out grocery bags, man the cash register, and even cook sample meals to show how the produce can be used.

“The mobile cooking cart provides nutrition education, taste testing — a variety of things,” says Kara Wright Cox, executive community director for the nonprofit. “It doesn’t help anyone if you buy spaghetti squash and you don’t know what to do with it. So we try to provide that education.”

A farmer must be a businessman, a mechanic, a boss, a laborer, a weatherman, a gambler. The work and the worry never stop. But it’s the only life that Watson and the McDaniels have ever known.

Kornegay wants to alleviate some of the stress for them and their fellow farmers across eastern North Carolina. He wants to make them a little more confident that they can feed their families year after year. Kornegay partners with roughly 30 farms to buy 100 percent of their fresh crop, including the excess — which increases the farmers’ revenue per acre. He also helps them diversify their crops so they don’t have all of their eggs in one basket, which helps limit farmers’ risk.

Kornegay wants his partnerships to become a business model that other produce companies will implement. “We’re hoping that this becomes like a poster-child story,” he says.

But why does he care so much about farmers? “Without farmers, people don’t get fed; people don’t have clothes,” Kornegay says. “Two basic necessities that every human being on the planet needs, and they’re the most unappreciated profession in the world.”

Inside the Ripe Revival headquarters in Rocky Mount, a photo hangs on the wall. The young boy who’d never had an apple before is holding out the first one he’s ever tried, looking straight into the camera with a big smile.

“When a child comes up and says they haven’t had an apple in however long or they’ve never tasted a sweet potato, and we’re giving them that access, it’s so much bigger than just food,” Cox says. “Food is just the vessel that gives hope to kids and families that there’s something better. Someone cares. There’s opportunity.”

Kornegay hopes to offer that opportunity to more and more families each day. The Mobile Market Program’s reach has expanded to 19 counties in eastern North Carolina, and he and Cox think that one day it might reach the whole state, maybe even beyond. As his reach increases, so, too, will his call to farmers. On both sides of the food equation, Kornegay will continue to empower people.

For more information about Ripe Revival, visit riperevival.com.

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This story was published on Apr 29, 2024

Rebecca Woltz

Rebecca is the staff writer at Our State.