Countless initiatives have been launched to fight food waste. Traditionally, these have been non-profit, volunteer-driven efforts like San Francisco’s Food Runners (which collects prepared food from restaurants or events for distribution to the needy) or food banks (which might collect surplus food from manufacturers or groceries). Recently, bunches of for-profit companies have been wading into the field, hoping that their efforts to decrease food waste might lead to increases in profits.
A few months ago, the Meetup.com group Food Innovation Circle set up a panel discussion on food waste reduction as a business opportunity. Representatives from three San Francisco-area companies told their stories and answered questions:
- Renewal Mill – this company’s goal is to convert byproducts into useful ingredients. The presenter was Claire Schlemme, Co-founder, CEO.
- Regrained; – their focus is giving new life to the ‘spent grain’ leftover from beer making. The presenter was Philip Saneski, Vice President of Product.
- Imperfect Produce – a produce delivery service that specializes in fruits and vegetables that don’t meet industry standards because they are too small, misshapen, or lightly bruised. The presenter was Dylan Bondy, head of outreach.
It was fascinating to hear how these companies were working to reduce food waste and establish sustainable businesses. Below I’ll share an overview of each company’s based on the event and a little bit of research.
Renewal Mill Rehabilitates Byproducts
When I saw the word “okara” on the Renewal Mill’s display at the event, I got excited. Okara; is probably not a word you have seen in your grocery store because a bland byproduct, and therefore can’t compete for shelf space at most markets1 Okara — a Japanese word that can be translated as “honorable husk” — is soybean fiber, the material left after cooked soybeans are ground and pressed to release the soymilk (which can then be sold as is or turned into tofu). It is light on flavor and heavy on grainy texture.
But still, it’s one of those oddball foods that has a hold on my imagination. Perhaps because I like saying the word. Or because it has a such a long history. Or perhaps because it represents such a great opportunity for byproduct rehabilitation.
Renewal Mill’s display featured cookies made with okara flour because their mission is to convert fibrous byproducts like okara into nutritious, delicious human food. Along with okara, they are looking at grape pomace (the skins and pits left over from grape pressing), olive pomace (residue from olive oil pressing), and almond meal (a remainder from almond milk production).
Each of these byproducts are major headache for manufacturers and each has an interesting nutritional profile. Almond meal, for example, is high in fiber and protein. Okara has 3.5% protein by weight (about the same as milk on a weight basis) and is high in fiber. Currently, most of the byproducts are added to animal feed or composted2
Renewal Mill’s target is commercial manufacturers — makers of tofu, wine, almond milk, and so on — because these facilities offer a concentrated and pure source of the byproduct. And since strict food safety protocols will be necessary, it can be easier to work with large quantities of material from a few sites instead of small quantities from dozens of sites (e.g., compare picking up juicing pulp from a large wholesale facility with pickups from a variety of small independent outlets).
In its ‘natural state’ at the tofu factory, okara is highly perishable, so a first step for Renewal Mill (and other byproduct ‘upcyclers’) is to dry the material and make it shelf stable. This step converts it from a low value byproduct to a nutritional supplement for baked goods and other prepared foods. With its high protein and fiber content, it could fortify a variety of foods.
The company faces numerous challenges: identifying efficient methods of processing the byproducts, educating chefs and food companies about the products, and balancing supply and demand.
Regrained Upcycles Grain from Breweries
The founders of Regrained; were inspired by beer. More specifically, the huge quantities of grain that are left over after brewing. Like okara, the vast majority is currently sold or given to livestock farmers.
Often known as ‘spent grain’ in the business, the material has significant nutritive value: 20% protein by weight, 30% fiber by weight, and has a low sugar content (because most of the sugar was extracted by the brewer). This nutritional profile makes the term ‘spent grain’ a bit of a misnomer and so Regrained is starting to call their product “Supergrain+”.
The San Francisco-based company has been working with local breweries to collect their post-brew grain, dry it to make it shelf stable, and finally convert it into ingredients that can be used in many types of food, like flours, grain mixes, and other products.
Regrained has been working on a multi-tiered approach to build their business. On the retail level, they offer three varieties of a food bar made with grain from breweries. On the wholesale or business-to-business level, they are formulating products that could be used in baked goods, sauces, and a variety of other products.
Like the okara used by Renewal Mill, the spent grain is perishable — after about 8 hours, food safety alarm bells start going off, so time is of the essence. This fact makes logistics a critical element of these byproduct recovery processes: a successful operation needs to moving a lot of grain from brewery to processing facility to storage. When working with small breweries, central processing facilities might work, but for big operations, the processing machinery could be on-site, so the grain would only need to move across the factory to the processor.
There are many obvious applications for processed brewers grain, but here’s one that I find conceptually interesting: use brewer’s grain as the base for a salty bar snack that could be enjoyed with beer, thus creating a loop.
Imperfect Produce Saves Ugly Fruit and Vegetables
Dylan Bondy from Imperfect Produce started his presentation noting that about 20% of fresh fruits and vegetables are rejected at the farm for cosmetic reasons. Wholesalers and stores have strict rules about produce: an apple must be a certain size and color, a carrot must be perfectly conical, and so on.
Most of these cosmetic rejects are perfectly good to eat, and this was the inspiration for the company’s founder: “Why not collect these cosmetic rejects and put them into a delivery box?” Such an approach would create several benefits:
- Offer fresh fruits and vegetables at a lower cost, thus reducing food inequality
- Provide a new outlet for produce that might normally be plowed under, composted, or sold for pennies as livestock feed, which could improve farmers’ incomes
- Push back against the often absurd cosmetic grading system
At the time of the event, the company was scaling up to ship 100,000 pounds per week in the San Francisco area, the Los Angeles area, and Orange County. In subsequent weeks, they have expanded to the Portland, OR Metro Area, the Seattle metro area (includes Tacoma), and the Chicago metro area.
Ironically, one of the biggest complaints from Imperfect Produce customers is that the produce isn’t ugly enough — some customers thought they’d be getting the ‘VIP vegetables’ like heart-shaped potatoes or hugging carrots. The fact that the produce generally looks normal to customers highlights the strictness of food grading practices.
It’s an exciting time to be fighting food waste. Every time I look at food or tech media on the internet, there seems to be another story about a company, government agency, or non-profit with an interesting approach. Significant creativity is being applied to the problem, and we can expect to see a lot of innovation and evolution as people try to figure out the way forward — we’ll see companies form, dissolve, or change strategy; manufacturers will identify new ways to use byproducts; we’ll see farmers adapt; and we’ll see eaters change their habits, perhaps picking that slightly odd-looking carrot or apple with an uncommon hue. And, of course, there is a role for all eaters to cut their household food waste and support companies and non-profits that are battling food waste.
More Articles on Food Waste Reduction Efforts
Here’s a random roundup of stories about food waste are frequent and I have collected a few that appeared since the event.
- Food waste alliance from OpenIDEO
- Pulp Pantry is ‘upcycling’ pulp from juice bars into new foods
- NPR’s The Salt reported on Pulp Pantry’s efforts
- A company in India is using flowers from religious ceremonies to make incense, soap and more.
- An article in the Washington Post about using how Toast Ale, ReGrained, and other companies are reducing food waste
- A Food 52 piece about Pulp Pantry, and ideas to upcycle food waste at home
- NPR writes about an upstate New York fish farm that uses brewery byproducts. A joint project between TimberFish Technologies and Five & 20 Spirits and Brewing. Also some coverage of work by other companies.
- A video from VOX that looks at the food waste problem
- New Food Economy highlights 7 organizations fighting food waste, including the amazing CropMobster;, a community exchange network for building the local food economy, reducing food waste, and nuturing hunger relief programs.
- But you might find it at a market specializing in Japanese foods, since it is sometimes eaten in Japan.
- To be sure, when looking at these byproducts that go to feed animals, one should think about what will replace the okara or almond meal. Will it be corn from the Midwest? Or will animal production decrease because of increasing feed prices? In general, these projects tend to push diets in the plant-based direction, i.e., humans getting the protein directly instead of via animal processing, which results in more efficient use of resources (livestock are generally poor converters of plant protein to animal protein, probably not much more efficient than humans).