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Farm to table on nationwide scale

Founder and CEO of Farmbox Direct works to eradicate food deserts by shipping fresh fruits and vegetables to consumers.

Ashley Tyrner is the founder and CEO of Farmbox Direct. (Photo: Farmbox Direct)

Ashley Tyrner, founder and CEO of Farmbox Direct, is branching out, but how she gets her products to consumers remains front of mind.

“I’m getting ready to announce in October … I have a very large partnership starting with a massive insurance company. My company is transitioning from a grocery experience to a health care company. … We’re going to ship you boxes of fruits and vegetables as preventative medicine. I think it’s going to revolutionize health care,” Tyrner revealed at the Women Leaders Forum to kick off the CSCMP Edge 2019 Conference in Anaheim, CA, on Sept. 15.

“I have had some hellacious fights with both FedEx and UPS in my day. You know what? I’m actually knee-deep in my battles with them again for this insurance partnership. There’s such a tiny margin there. But it’s volume, right? UPS finally came to us and said, ‘We see what you’re trying to do.’ I’m getting rates as if I’m shipping $100 million a year of volume.”

In a presentation titled “Create a Business That Solves a Problem, Not an Added Accessory in a World of Mass Consumption,” Tyrner explained that she launched Farmbox Direct nearly six years ago “to eradicate the food desert problem that America faces; 24 million Americans live in a food desert. Half of that is low income. They basically have no accessibility to fresh fruits and vegetables.”

She started the business in New York City, where she lives. It grew when Farmbox Direct attracted the attention of the Obama administration. “I had to learn how to ship this box of fruit and vegetables,” Tyrner said, admitting, “I had no idea what logistics was.”

Tyrner is big on corporate social responsibility and she highlighted companies she says are taking it seriously, companies like Google, Coca-Cola, Ben & Jerry’s, TOMS Shoes, Chipotle and Levi Strauss.

“My produce is shipped in a liner that’s recycled denim,” she noted.

And Coca-Cola launched a 5BY20 initiative to economically empower women across the globe.

“When I had to go out and raise money, it was horrible. Every time I had to walk into a room, there was maybe, if I was lucky, one woman in the meeting of these venture capital groups in New York City and Silicon Valley. I actually had a man stand up in one of my pitches and say, ‘Can you tell me what’s in the business bank account because women in general are not very good at managing money?’” Tyrner said. “I realized at that moment that we still have so much farther to go with women in the workplace.”

It’s important to Tyrner — and her customers — that the Farmbox Direct packaging is recyclable or biodegradable, and the company recently began testing packaging made from recycled water bottles. “My biggest rate of cancel at Farmbox Direct is not damage. It’s not that they go to Amazon. It’s that they still feel that there’s too much waste in the box, even though it’s recyclable or biodegradable.”

Tyrner also shared she had a big learning curve when she started her company. “I had no idea there’s food logistics, shipping logistics. … When I started this company, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. … I have learned how backward food logistics are in this country.”

She continued, “I had to make the determination if I wanted to stay a locally sourced company or did I want to eradicate food deserts. The need of the food deserts was so extreme that I chose that path. We source from all over the country now depending on the season. … My warehouse is in Kansas City because we reach the entire continental U.S. in one, two or three days. … I had to make the determination that I wanted to eradicate food deserts. That was a much larger scale that I needed to meet.”

Farmbox Direct now reaps $500 million in annual revenue. An offshoot, Harlow’s Harvest, the brainchild of Tyrner’s 8-year-old daughter, launched in February. Like Farmbox Direct, Harlow’s Harvest feeds a need. It’s a themed monthly subscription box teaching children cooking skills as well as lessons in sustainability.

“We’ve taken out of all our public schools home ec. Kids are not growing up with the life skill of knowing how to cook,” Tyrner said.

Kim Link Wills

Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills has written about everything from agriculture as a reporter for Illinois Agri-News to zoology as editor of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. Her work has garnered awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Magazine Association of the Southeast. Prior to serving as managing editor of American Shipper, Kim spent more than four years with XPO Logistics.