Artisanal Food Waste: Can You Turn Scraps Into Premium Products?
Many efforts to address the food waste crisis hinge on getting consumers to buy fruits and vegetables that are adorably ugly — the bumpy tomato, the bulbous carrot, the dinged apple. Taste and nutritional value aren't compromised by their irregular appearance. Still, many stores discount blemished produce — a concession to convention aimed at keeping the product moving briskly off the shelves and away from landfills. Earlier this summer, Wal-Mart launched an ugly apple pilot program at 300 of its outlets in Florida; grocery stores across the U.K. and Canada sell wonky-looking produce for 30 percent less than the shops' standard fare. The slashed price tags have a subtext: The quirky produce is a compromise.
But a new crop of entrepreneurs is inverting the equation by using salvaged foods as the main ingredients in artisanal items. They're hoping that, instead of paying bottom dollar for produce that might otherwise have been destined for the landfill, customers will pony up for premium products.
Toast Ale, a London-based company that brews suds from surplus bread, believes it has found an environmentally friendly way to tap into the booming craft beer market.
At first, the company — founded in January by the food waste activist Tristram Stuart, who runs the nonprofit advocacy group Feedback — was a modest and distinctly local operation, ferrying bread from local bakeries to brewers in Hackney. It's quickly scaled up production, and now is bottled by Hambleton Ales in Yorkshire. Toast has negotiated a contract with a sandwich company, which donates its rejected slices free of charge. The beer retails for £3.00 (nearly $4 U.S.) a bottle, sold in cases of six. So far, 830 kilos of bread have gone into 25,000 bottles of Toast's pale ale, estimates Louisa Ziane, who manages media and communications for the company.
Now, Toast Ale partners with restaurants, pubs and retailers throughout the U.K., and is eyeing plans to expand to Iceland and New York City. A new brew — a bread pudding flavor — is set to launch this month.
Ziane says that the company aims to flag reasons that individuals should care about food waste — from its environmental impacts to the economic burdens — in a way that doesn't feel like a bummer. "We don't want to do it in a way that's preachy or lecturing," she says. The branding is sleek and minimalist, taking a cue from old-timey stamped logos, but the website is full of startling stats outlining the scope of the problem — such as the fact that nearly 40 percent of bread baked in the U.K. goes to waste. To make more of a dent in the issue, Toast has also published its recipe online so that DIY brewers can take a stab at it.
That strategy of appealing to do-gooder impulses aligns with something that sustainability expert Roni Neff has found in her research: Conversations about waste don't have to carry connotations of self-flagellation. "As a general marketing principal, people are going to be motivated by feeling like they're doing good for the Earth," says Neff, director of the research program in Food System Sustainability & Public Health at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. "We want to be efficient stewards of our own resources." Products that add value to would-be waste are ideally situated to cater to a sector of ethically motivated shoppers. "When you're eating a food that would have been wasted and tastes perfectly fine, there's no inconvenience for you," Neff says.
Toast Ale frames the beer as a clever way to make use of food that would be arbitrarily cast aside. There's nothing wrong with those knobby, crusty heels on loaves of bread, Ziane notes — it's just that, "for reasons of taste preference or texture preference, it isn't part of the product that's sold" as a premade sandwich.
Ziane hopes that the beer stands on its own — that it's, first and foremost, a solid brew. "When people learn the story behind it, it adds that value," she says.
In Philadelphia, meanwhile, Jonathan Deutsch noticed that local soup kitchens and food pantries were often flush with food that hung around — and was more likely to languish if it looked imperfect.
"People kept going through the line with chicken, salad ... they'd get to a case of brown bananas, but they kept walking," says Deutsch, the founder of the Drexel Food Lab, a culinary research group at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Conveying castoff produce to hungry people seemed like a good idea — but only if consumers are game. Instead, even with the best intentions, Deutsch says, the store-to-pantry pipeline sometimes amounts to little more than "shifting trash around the city."
Enter Rescued Relish, an anything-goes condiment and a way to preserve and monetize those would-be scraps. The Food Lab has enlisted Brine Street Picklery to produce batches of relishes made from excess produce that Philabundance, the local anti-hunger organization, can't move.
The relish is modeled on a Pennsylvania Dutch chowchow recipe — a tangy mix of sweet, spicy and sour flavors. And it's a way to capitalize on, rather than complain about, the variation in food donated to the food bank. Relish, Deutsch explains, has a flexible identity. "It's still relish if it has more cabbage this week than it did last week," he says. A pinch of this, a tablespoon of that — Deutsch appreciates that the condiment is "a vegetable version of nose-to-tail eating," with a similar goal of putting scraps to work.
Once Philabundance transitions to a new facility, Deutsch says, the nonprofit could expand its workforce training program and adopt Rescued Relish as its own, keeping production in-house. The relish will be sold at Fare & Square, a nonprofit grocery store in impoverished Chester, Pa. Deutsch hopes to expand from there.
Though they haven't settled on a retail value, Deutsch says that, when the product is sold in retailers other than Fare & Square, it will be priced as a premium good. He believes that a higher sticker price can help chip away at the stigma hanging onto surplus food. Deutsch says that when the team looks toward placing the product in other stores, they'll try to carve out a consumer base that is already versed in the lingo of sustainability and ethical food systems. "We're looking for foodies and [people] who really vote with their dollar in terms of the causes they believe in," Deutsch says.
Neff speculates that value-added items might also telegraph an investment that consumers would recognize — that many hands contributed to making the final product. In other words, if someone went to the trouble to chop and preserve an ingredient, it must be worth something.
Neff says that by showing that would-be food waste really does have value, products like Deutsch's relish could help trigger a shift in the foodie community and wider culture.
Such products could also serve as a model for other cities looking to mount local interventions into global issues. "I don't think we'll ever have a centralized food waste factory," Deutsch says. "We're much more likely to see a constellation of micro-enterprises all over doing this kind of work."
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