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Sibling team lauded for innovative use of ‘ugly produce’

Well-known in the North Carolina sweet potato industry, siblings Laura Hearn and Will Kornegay spent the better part of a decade in managerial positions for competing grower-shippers, which no doubt made for lively Thanksgiving dinner table discussion.

Since the fall of 2017 the pair have been in business together with a start-up natural foods company, Glean LLC, using so-called “ugly produce” to make a line of allergen-free flour products as well as a selection of snacks called Poppers & Toppers.Laura-Hearn Will-Kornegay-1Laura Hearn and Will Kornegay

So groundbreaking is their concept and their expanding product line that NC IDEA, a foundation that provides grants to companies “with a unique value proposition and a scalable business model,” named Glean LLC among its seven recipients of a non-dilutive $50,000 grant.

While the primary motivation behind Glean is to make “a global impact by finding a profitable home for farmers’ crops and transforming them into a line of creative and completely allergen-free products,” according to a company release, the backstory includes Kornegay’s own issues with severe allergies.

After years of dealing with severe reactions, Kornegay was diagnosed with a food intolerance as the result of a Lonestar tick bite. He is now allergic to all mammal products, many of which are hidden in foods.

So putting the elements together was both philanthropy and necessity. The first line consists of 100 percent vegetable powders or flours made from, not surprisingly, sweet potatoes and other North Carolina products like beets, pumpkins and cauliflower. That line can be used as flour alternatives and also as ingredients in smoothies, soups, sauces and breading. Poppers & Toppers are grab-n-go snacks, and Hearn said they include an all-natural trail mix called Sweets & Beets as well as toppers for other meal items. Both lines are expected to be in more than 1,000 southeastern retail stores this summer and also available at the company’s website, liveglean.com, and on additional commercial e-commerce sites.

Headquartered in Snow Hill, NC, Glean is committed both to supporting rural farmers and the agriculture industry and to paying it forward in the fight against global hunger.

On the first front, Kornegay and Hearn don’t anticipate any shortage of processable vegetables, given stats available on the amount of fresh produce not harvested due to that “ugly” attribute. It is estimated that in the United States, upward of 40 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables are left in the fields due to imperfect size, shape and color.

Currently Glean works with three North Carolina farmers, and Kornegay said as volume grows, more farmers will be brought into the group.

“We’re also looking at different areas, but fortunately for us North Carolina is diverse with a broad range of commodities,” he said.

Nor do they expect demand to decrease as it is also estimated that almost one-third of consumers in the world suffer from one or more food intolerances or allergies.

The powdered product is processed at a plant in Farmville, NC, where the pair partner with Natural Blend Vegetable Dehydration, part of Ham Farms where Kornegay continues to manage sales and marketing. Hearn had served as marketing director for Nash Produce.

The philanthropy extends beyond finding a purpose for otherwise forgotten food items, thus benefiting farmers, to feeding those who might not know where the next meal is coming from. The siblings’ mission, “Gathering Goodness,” donates a pound of product to those in need to match every pound of product they sell. They work with a variety of organizations such as Feeding America and local food pantries and restaurants. One eatery is Place at the Table, where diners pay what they’re able and given “tools to get on their feet.”

Glean will be at PMA Fresh Summit and will also exhibit at the Natural Products Expo in Baltimore this September.

Looking to the future, Hearn and Kornegay said organics will be added to the product mix, and Kornegay added, “The sky’s the limit. We can only dream.”