Upcycling and Reducing Food Waste: A Cooperative Effort

In cooperation with National Cooperative Grocers (NCG), Presence Marketing hosted its 15th Annual Panel Discussion and Reception at Natural Products Expo West in March. This year’s event, which draws together NCG member retailers to explore key topics and issues facing the industry, focused on promoting “upcycling” and ways to reduce food waste in retail and manufacturing.

Speakers for the panel included Angie Crone, CEO of the Upcycled Food Association; Seth Goldman, Chief Change Agent of Eat the Change and Just Ice Tea; Jasmine Byrne, President of Big Mountain Foods; and Bob Zender, Director of Marketing for Uglies Kettle Chips. Eric Newman, longtime co-op veteran and Principal of EHN Consulting, served as moderator. The event was hosted by Niki Nash, Associated Category Manager for NCG, and Milton Zimmerman, EVP of Presence Marketing.

Newman, whose career has been dedicated to growing successful co-op business models, asked a number of questions of the panelists, highlights of which are presented here.

How has your work built awareness around reducing waste and upcycling?
Angie Crone:  The Upcycled Food Association was created in 2019 by nine companies who were already upcycling. They wanted to collaborate to accelerate the upcycled economy and steward its definition. Today, we are 250 companies strong, and we support them through research, advocacy and consumer education. Our flagship program, Upcycle Certified, launched in 2021. It’s the first and only third-party verification for upcycled food and ingredients. To date, we have 371 products certified. For me, growing up on a farm, I know what it means to grow food and I know about food waste. This is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart.

Seth Goldman:  Some of you may know I was involved in Honest Tea. We started that in 1998 and grew it to scale, and thought we had rode off into the sunset, and I moved on to other things. In 2020, we started to put together the ideas on a whiteboard for a planet-friendly food company and what that would stand for. The first thing, of course, was plant based. Then we looked at water and the environmental footprint of our foods, and if we could find a way to address food waste. That led us first to mushrooms, which require only 40 gallons of water to grow a pound of mushrooms vs. 1,900 gallons to grow a pound of almonds. We developed a relationship with a fourth-generation family farm in Pennsylvania – they were growing beautiful Portobello mushrooms for market, but we saw the castoffs, stems, oversized, undersized or bruised mushrooms would be perfect to make mushroom jerky. Also, we wanted to create healthy snacks for kids and developed a line of carrot chews soaked in fruit juice that uses the whole carrot. It makes a very delicious product. Then, the funny thing is, I realized that when we heard that Honest Tea was being discontinued, we were actually able to ‘upcycle’ the tea brand and so we launched Just Ice Tea.

Jasmine Byrne:  Big Mountain Foods was founded in 1987 by my mother, Kimberly Chamberland, and she still serves as CEO. We are a woman founded and woman owned company and very proud of that. Today, we sell a line of plant-based meat alternatives that are clean label and free of common allergens to most retailers in Canada and now we’re expanding into the U.S. Most recently, we moved into a 70,000-sq.-ft. facility and are making the first-ever soy-free tofu made from Canadian fava beans. What we didn’t know about making tofu is that it comes with a lot of waste – it’s actually 50% waste, which is called ‘okara.’ We wanted to be different and not release this into the waste stream, so we have developed our new facility to be zero waste. Because okara actually has protein and fiber in it, we are now upcycling this product from our tofu.

Bob Zender:  Our flagship brand and company name is Dieffenbach’s. Based in Pennsylvania, the third-generation, family owned business has been working with potato farmers up and down the East Coast for almost 60 years. We were continually witnessing products that were not suitable for market getting wasted. They were being turned away and either plowed under or discarded some other way. It finally stuck a chord, and we launched Uglies Kettle Chips. We were able to take those imperfect potatoes and make them into beautifully delicious kettle chips. We’ve got seven varieties now, plus we are expanding and adding more kettles. There’s definitely a lot of interest in the brand. Also, we just became Upcycled Certified, which is something we’re very proud of.

 How much of all food produced globally is wasted?
Angie Crone:  It’s an answer you don’t really want to know, but we are going to answer it. It’s a lot – between 30% and 40% of all food that is produced in the world either goes unsold or otherwise goes to waste. That’s about 1.3 billion tons of food, and that includes all of the resources that went into it – the fresh water, the agricultural land, etc. Plus, it includes all of the carbon emissions, so about 8% of total global carbon emissions are coming from food waste alone. Also, it’s an economic problem of loss every time we waste food, and it happens at every stage of the supply chain. It’s a big problem, but we also see a lot of solutions and opportunity.

Seth Goldman:  I will share that I also serve on the board of Beyond Meat. To me, the biggest place where food and calories and energy and water are wasted is around the growing of animal-based food. When you look at it, you can grow a plant-based burger with 99% less water and 93% less land. There’s just a ton wasted – it takes something like 11 calories to get one calorie of animal protein.

Jasmine Byrne:  I would add that we have to think differently when you are looking at waste because about one third of it is coming from food manufacturing plants. What can we do to eliminate that? Also, we are looking at what crops are the most sustainable and can handle climate change. Since we use a lot of different bean varieties, we chose fava because it is the most regenerative crop – it puts nitrogen back into the soil and it’s more stable in various climates. Looking at it from that lens is important, too.

Bob Zender:  We are very close to the farming communities from which we purchase our potatoes, and they put a lot of resources into creating these crops. If they don’t make the grade, it’s a waste of resources and not just a waste of food. These families and communities depend on those proceeds, so there’s a trickle-down effect. We can have a real impact on that. With Uglies Kettle Chips, we’re looking below the peel to find the beauty, so to speak. We’re getting a slight discount on the imperfect potatoes, but we’re reinvesting those resources. It’s just being socially conscious and realizing there’s a benefit to everyone involved. If you think about the community at large, we are all a part of trying to make this planet work. At the end of the day, upcycled certification is a step in the right direction that helps us all.

How do we make upcycled foods more appealing to consumers?
Angie Crone:  For shoppers, I recently read that three out of four sustainable shoppers use third-party certification as an indicator. When shoppers are making many decisions in a grocery store, third-party certification can really help. Also, it provides retailers a tool to demonstrate their impact, and to have a conversation with supply chain partners about what they are doing to reduce waste. For upcycling in particular, I think scale is always going to help. Part of the mission of the Upcycled Food Association is to facilitate connections within the supply chain and bring together companies and investors to talk about collaboration and explore how we can achieve that scale.

Seth Goldman:  We always sell on taste first. We are proud of the fact that we use upcycled ingredients in our products, but we don’t necessarily lead with that. We want to speak to taste, and then to planet friendly as a catch-all. Then, if someone want to dig deeper, they can find out the details. To me, one very immediate opportunity is actually in produce. For whatever reason, consumers don’t like to buy single bananas so they often get discarded. But if you merchandise a bunch of single bananas together… Romance the ugly fruit. Make it fun, and maybe make it cost a bit less as opposed to throwing it out.

Jasmine Byrne:  When you look at it from an efficiency and opportunity cost standpoint, every business wants to be profitable, right? So, by eliminating waste or putting it back into the products you’re producing, you’re increasing your profit margins, and maybe you can actually reduce the price at retail because now you’re balancing out your margins because you don’t have as much waste.

Bob Zender:  The upcycled certification process is not just checking a box. It’s a rigorous process that asked tough questions and held us accountable. There’s still so much upside to reducing food waste. One of the benefits of the certification process is that it opens your eyes and makes you realize there are still things you can do. There are communities and people in agriculture who rely on their crops succeeding and going to market. And so, there’s a bigger benefit to those communities from being able to turn their product into something, as opposed to expending resources and having it go to waste. That’s something I think we need to keep in mind, as well.