By Kati Moore, MEM’16

DURHAM, N.C. – Duke University senior Courtney Bell (Trinity ’17) doesn’t just study environmental issues – she also actively works to address them.

In addition to her Environmental Sciences major and Economics minor, she has completed an internship with the East Coast Greenway Alliance (ECGA) addressing sustainable transportation, and started her own small startup business providing local produce to Durham residents.

These out-of-classroom experiences augment what she learns in her classes, Bell says, and give her a more nuanced and better rounded understanding of what it takes to find viable solutions to vexing environmental challenges.  

“I hadn’t really taken any classes that focused on transportation, so the ECGA internship was a really great opportunity,” she says.

Her goal for the eleven-week internship, which she did as a research advocacy intern through the Duke Stanback Internship Program, was to conduct a literature review of current approaches to greenways and carbon markets and write a report for use by the ECGA, which is currently working to connect almost three thousand miles of greenway trails along the East Coast.

Bell, however, took it a step further and developed a proposal for a novel carbon offset market to be hosted on the East Coast Greenway.

This carbon offset market would allow greenway users to earn carbon credits by walking or cycling on the trail, encouraging more active transportation.

ECGA is now using Bell’s proposal to show potential donors how the East Coast Greenway, once completed, can be a solution for more sustainable transportation.

While interning with ECGA, Bell also worked on her startup company, Ungraded Produce, which she founded with fellow senior Anya Ranganathan last year. The goal of the company is to increase accessibility to fresh local produce for Triangle residents by creating a market for misshapen but high-quality ugly produce.

“Ugly” produce includes fruits and vegetables that producers deem unfit for sale in the industrial food system, mainly due to cosmetic flaws.

“We don’t take in anything that is rotting or is considered low quality,” Bell says. “The fact that this stuff is getting wasted normally even though it’s absolutely perfect … just shows how much waste is occurring in our food system.”

Bell and Ranganathan came up with the idea during the summer of 2015, while Bell was completing an internship in Detroit and Ranganathan was interning in Durham. When they returned to Durham in the fall, they began laying the groundwork for their new program.

The pair took their idea to the Duke Startup Ventures Clinic, in which Duke Law School students offer legal advice and assistance to student startups. The clinic worked with them an entire year, one semester of which Bell spent abroad in London, Skyping in to meetings.

Ungraded Produce got another boost last summer, when Bell and Ranganathan were awarded a $5,000 grant from the Nicholas School’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program. The grant provided funding for the two co-founders to further develop their business through the summer – which coincided with Bell’s full-time internship at ECGA.

This fall, Bell and Ranganathan are completing the trial period for Ungraded Produce. They make seven deliveries every two weeks to their 15 subscribers. Every other Friday, they collect the ugly produce from five or six local farms and a produce hub and take it to their refrigeration facility, where they sort and package the goods. The next morning, they drive to various locations around the Triangle, delivering the baskets of produce to their customers.

So far the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Their current customers consist of Duke students and alumni. Bell and Ranganathan plan to expand Ungraded Produce to the greater Durham community in the next year.

When not running her business, Bell finds time for other leadership activities as well, including serving as treasurer for her sorority.  

“A lot of the things I do outside of classes haven’t necessarily been driven or fueled by classes I take at Duke, but I have enjoyed the classes I’ve taken – they’ve given me that extra knowledge that doesn’t pertain to my other interests, so it definitely makes me feel more well-rounded,” she says.

Last spring, Bell took a class called “Global Food Systems” with Charlotte Clark, assistant professor of the practice in sustainability education, and Daniel Ahlquist, lecturing fellow with the Thompson Writing Program. Next semester Bell hopes to take more classes geared toward her practical interests in food systems and sustainable transportation.

She has also worked closely with Chantal Reid, assistant professor of the practice of biology. During sophomore year, Bell worked in Reid’s lab as an undergraduate researcher.  

Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment offers undergraduates the opportunity to pursue bachelor degrees in Environmental Sciences or Environmental Science & Policy – both with an option to complete a concentration in Marine Sciences and Conservation. The school also offers two bachelor degree options in Earth and Ocean Sciences.  To learn more about the majors, minors and elective courses offered, go here.