Is Upcycling the Answer to America’s Food Waste Problem?

Oct. 7, 2021
Joining the Food For Thought podcast this week is Pulp Pantry’s Kaitlin Mogentale here to talk about the upcycling food movement and how the process of taking one company’s food waste can turn into another company’s product gold.

Did you know that we waste about 40% of our food across the United States and most of that ends up in landfills. Did you also know there is a solution to reduce that much food waste while also making a new product category? It’s true and it’s called Upcycling. Here to talk about upcycling and how it can benefit people and processors is Kaitlin Mogentale.

Mogentale is the creator and founder of Pulp Pantry, which takes the waste from juiceries and produce companies and turns it into upcycled gold, resulting in Pulp Pantry’s Pulp Chips. Throughout this episode, we talk about the statistics behind food waste and its impact on people and our planet. We discuss upcycling and how companies and consumers are responding to it, while ending the episode talking about the potential for this newer product category.


Erin: Kaitlin, welcome to the Food For Thought podcast.

Kaitlin: Thank you so much for having me, Erin.

Erin: It's great to have you on. I just wanna dive right in with some questions. So for the podcast listeners who may not be familiar with Pulp Pantry, let's start off by talking about what your company manufactures.

Kaitlin: Yes, so at Pulp Pantry, we are an upcycled food brand picking what would otherwise be no ingredients, super-nutritious ingredients that would go to waste, such as the fiber or leftover pulp from cold-pressed juice. And we turn that into a line of delicious veggie chips that are made with the fresh veggies as the first ingredient.

Erin: So for people who aren't familiar with what the upcycled food niche is, can you explain that a little further, what that is or what it entails?

Kaitlin: So, upcycled food essentially means that you're looking at the underleveraged byproducts or surplus or rejected produce that comes out of our food manufacturing processes. I'll give you a few examples, let's say, you know, cold-pressed juice, obviously, that's how we got our start was looking at the fiber left over from the juicing process and finding that that usually went to waste. And of course, the value in that byproduct is that it contains all the fiber of fresh fruits and vegetables and it still contains nutrition. Another place, you know, where you might be able to look at upcycled opportunities would be at, let's say the salad kits that we buy in-store that are pre-packaged. What a lot of people don't know is almost 40% of the lettuce might go to waste in preparing the salad kits because they want to get the freshest, you know, crunchiest, most vibrantly colored leaves. And if we're talking about a head of romaine lettuce, there might be 40% of the outer leaves that are dehydrated from sun exposure or have windburn or sunburns. And so, a lot of those leaves will be discarded, but still contain, of course, the nutrition and the fiber of the produce.

And so, there's a lot of places where waste happens in our food system. We waste about 40% of our food across the United States. And most of that, unfortunately, does end up in landfills. You know, there are small percentages that might get diverted to donating food, or animal feed, or compost. But if you look at the EPA hierarchy, really why upcycled food is so important is because, you know, our first priority should be to feed people good, nutritious, healthy food. And in the United States, I think it's about bridging the issue of food waste and the fact that, you know, 40% of our food going to waste is absolutely insurmountable. I mean, it's just something that, you know, we really had the capacity to tackle and we need to dedicate more resources to that, given that food waste does contribute so drastically to climate change and has been listed as one of the top solutions to fight climate change.

So, that's on one hand but, of course, on the other hand, it's one in six Americans are food insecure, and a lot of people who lack access to healthy, fresh, nutritious food. When we think about the paradigm of the food resources that are going to waste, it just so happens that the top items wasted are fresh fruits and vegetables. But on the other side, 9 in 10 Americans don't have access to or don't eat their servings of fresh fruits and vegetables every day. And there have been reports from, for example, the Union of Concerned Scientists, that show if all Americans were to eat their servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, we'd save hundreds of thousands of lives and billions in medical costs.

In my mind and in the Pulp Pantry universe bring the issue of upcycled food and why it's such a great solution to not only fight climate change but hopefully provide greater access to healthy fresh food is it really links everything together. It links together the environment, social, and even just individual and community health issues that we're facing in our society currently that I think can really be addressed with this solution. And of course, not the solution alone but it is why it's so important.

Erin: How many other companies are you aware of that are in the upcycled food space?

Kaitlin: In the upcycled food space, there are definitely over 100 members of the Upcycled Food Association, which was created just last year. The Upcycled Food Association is really bringing together entrepreneurs in the space. The companies that are coming out with upcycled food as their kind of key brand promise. I mean, it's pretty few and far between. However, this year, we've seen so many new product launches related to upcycled food. And I think the main realization for a lot of new brands coming into the space has been consumers, in general, care so much about having the product that they buy, oriented towards their values.

And because climate change and climate anxiety are a growing thing that we're all experiencing as consumers and as we learn about issues like plastic waste or food waste, I think more and more companies that are coming onto the market are actually looking at how can we address some of these issues. And obviously build purpose into our brand. And so I'm excited because although the upcycled food space is pretty small and, like, we talked about a little bit earlier before jumping on the podcast, only 6% of American consumers know what upcycling is. And that was an estimate done by the Upcycled Food Association. And yet, when people find out about upcycling, more than 60% of people who've been educated on it are specifically seeking out upcycled foods. So I think there's just a lot of opportunity in this space. And I'm definitely excited to see more companies coming into play. But I would say it's still maybe a couple of hundred companies in the United States that are actually specifically tackling food waste through an upcycled food solution.

Erin: Tell me more about why tackling food waste is a big deal to you.

Kaitlin: There's three buckets I would separate the issue of food waste into and how it affects our society. One is environmental, and what happens when food goes to waste. We talked about how most of our food waste actually goes to landfills. And it's not necessarily redistributed into donations or animal feed or compost. And so the largest majority going to landfills. I would say in landfills is our number one solid waste component, which is so much talking about food waste being the thing that's cluttering our landfills the most. But what happens when food breaks down is it actually creates methane gas, which is a potent greenhouse gas more than 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. And scientists say that food waste actually contributes to about 8% of our global greenhouse gas emissions and it's the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind the United States and China.

If you're talking about the environmental ramifications, obviously, tackling climate change is a really pressing issue today because we are seeing sea levels rising. We're seeing more frequent climate disasters and catastrophes and people who are, especially in marginalized communities, being forced to really abandon their livelihoods in some ways because of these climate disasters. So, you know, environmental and then kind of leading into the social aspect, which is, again, that, you know, because tackling climate change really connects to just the way that people live and the way that people access resources, and the way that people have established their homes in areas that are now more prone to things like wildfires, or floods, or whether it's like hurricanes. I mean, there's just so many crazy things, of course, that we all know as consumers of media that are going on in the world that are all connected to the issue of climate change.

So, for me, that's really one of the biggest calls to action is how can we do better? We have rising obesity in the United States, but across the globe, we have issues of malnutrition or lack of nutrition or even lack of access to healthy fresh foods, and starvation, and hunger. We talk about 2050, our population growing to almost 10 billion people. And what a lot of people say is, with that population growth, we would need to increase our food supply by 60% or more than double.

What I look at is we are wasting more than 30% of global food supply. Instead of clearing more forest land, which will lead to further climate change and will further inhibit some of the carbon sinks that are inherent in our forests, instead of clearing that land to create more farmland and boost up our food production., let's not put a bandaid solution on the issue of hunger. Let's address food waste and hopefully find ways that we can redistribute good food resources to feed more people. And I think first and foremost, we need to tackle that issue, just to make sure that we can feed the world in a way that's sustainable and works with Mother Nature and with some of the climate issues that we're seeing today. I think there's so many different aspects from nutrition, and human health, and just displacement and climate change. Tt's all connected. And that's why for me, food waste is such a big issue that we really need to tackle starting today.

Erin: Can you talk a bit more about your supply chain and how your company manufactures pulp chips? Specifically, do you work with other manufacturers or food service and ask for their carrot peels?

Kaitlin: For us, we are looking at so many different areas where food waste happens and thinking about how Pulp Pantry's processing and the way that we receive ingredients can hopefully cast a wider net as to where food waste is happening in our system. Fr example, we've created a list of eight produce items that we see going to waste at the most frequent quantities. And the way that we created that list was collaboratively, we worked with a produce broker with a lot of suppliers that he provides fresh produce to. They come to him asking him for resources to upcycle their byproducts after manufacturing salad kits, for example.

He might be seeing a ton of rejections and surplus produce coming from the fields, given that he's connected to all of these different players in the space. We work collaboratively with our industry partners to say, "Where is the food waste happening the most and where can we provide the most benefit?" We also work with cold-pressed juice manufacturers and two large national brands that are, you know, on a consistent juicing schedule. So, they produce packaged goods that go to grocery stores across the nation. And because of that, they have consistent supply of the produce pulp, that we're able to take and manufacture into our chips.

We're looking at a couple of different avenues where food waste is happening mostly from the manufacturing end but also sometimes from the field and sometimes from cosmetic or quality issues that come from manufacturing. And we're just trying to give all of that produce a home by creating our own processing technique that will allow us to essentially create an ingredient to manufacture our chips. The challenge with manufacturing is that traditional manufacturing paradigms have oftentimes been reliant on dry ingredient inputs.

If you think about a chip, for example, most chips on the market are made from corn flour, or maybe potato flour, or potato starch, or dehydrated potato flakes. For many of these inputs, because they are dry ingredients, technology and the way that our manufacturing facilities have been built up is to streamline that process.

For us, because of the innovation and because of the way that we want to put fresh ingredients at the center of our products, we're faced with the challenge of dealing with and kind of remediating the fresh ingredient in a traditional manufacturing paradigm. So, for Pulp Pantry, that's where a lot of our innovation has been centered is how do we get fresh ingredients into an input that will make sense for a traditional chip manufacturer. So, we do rely heavily on partnerships both on the supplier front and, of course, on our manufacturing front.

Erin: So this next one is a two-part question and a real close follow-up to what you were just talking about. So do you work with only local organizations to obtain your food waste ingredients? It sounds like you're more national but not just local or do you have cohorts throughout the country that's sending their product? If companies that you're presently not working with wanted to work with you, how could they go about doing so?

Kaitlin: We have been working with California-based companies. However, their sourcing is not necessarily limited locally. The reason why we focus on California is definitely due to costs. And because of our fresh ingredients service, we do have a cold chain transportation for all of our ingredients coming in. A lot of those ingredients need to be processed relatively quickly to stay within kind of our quality standards. We have been kind of focused on the West Coast for our sourcing to date and focused on organic produce, as well, which has been something, you know, very important to our consumers. So, I would say for anyone who's looking to work with us, we are always so excited to explore potential sourcing partnerships, especially as we grow and want to build out that partnership, the list of partners that we can call on to source byproducts or rejections or surplus. So, you know, people are definitely welcome to reach out.

And I think on the other side, it's about finding ways that we can support one another. Obviously, tackling food waste is going to be an issue that does require a lot of collaboration. So I'm always excited to be able to collaborate with companies that have large amounts of byproducts and figure out ways that we can either support in product development or just provide some advice and feedback based on what we've learned. I'm always happy to be a part of that conversation. The companies that we work with might be shipping their end products nationally, but a lot of them do manufacture within California or the West Coast and just for the ease of working with fresh ingredients, that's definitely still been the focal point.

Erin: What was the difficulty level in getting Pulp Pantry off the ground? What issues did you run into while getting products on the shelf?

Kaitlin: There were so many issues; where can we start? The biggest thing for us was the R&D process definitely took a bit of time. And we really started manufacturing on a small scale; very small compared to I think what our co-packer would consider a normal-sized production run. But for us the innovation that was inherent in the product was the reason why I think our co-packer was willing to take that risk and that chance on us is because of where consumer trends are headed. And it does require some changes in not only the ingredients that consumers are interested in, but also the way that our products would be manufactured. So, it's been a very collaborative process.

I would say the biggest challenge for us is when we received our first purchase order from Target. We work with Target on the West Coast only. So we're in about 400 stores, spanning from Washington, Oregon, to all of California, Nevada, and Arizona. And we got our purchase order, and it happened to be probably three times the quantities of product that we would manufacture in a traditional production run. And due to the lead times on some of our ingredients, we wouldn't have been able to fill that whole purchase order. And so for us, really throttling our growth and our production capabilities and advancing in our R&D and our processing capabilities, to meet demand and meet, you know, our retailer partners, that has been a big challenge for us and in making sure that, you know, we can support onboarding new customers. You know, we just launched in Whole Foods in the Southern Pacific region and we're launching in a big national food distributor, specifically, they'll focus on the West Coast.

For us, it's really been about throttling our growth. I think what is inherent in the innovation, the way that we're doing things differently, also means that a quick national turn on strategy wouldn't necessarily work for us. But I really liked working within that constraint because that's what it takes to really do something different. We want to make sure we're creating a great quality product, that we're putting out a product that our consumers will love and, you know, that we're staying true to our values and kind of where we can meet the most need and hopefully make the most difference. So, it's balancing all of those different factors with, you know, the desire to grow, of course, a successful national brand as an end result.

Erin: It definitely sounds like you're very busy. This leads into my next question. What is your distribution like right now?

Kaitlin: We've been super focused on building partnerships with aligned retailers. Our focus has definitely been on the West Coast and places in our back door that we can have a little bit more of a relationship with. I wouldn't say that we're limited to the West Coast. We're launching in MOM's Market, which is on the East Coast. And that's happening in October. But the reason why we chose to work with MOM's, despite it being so far from home was because they have a special opportunity where they are celebrating upcycled food products to the special merchandising section of the store focused on upcycled food products.

For us that was very exciting because it made the story of upcycling so prominent on shelf and leads to mutual success for the retailer and understanding, “does our consumer base care about this? Is this a section of the store where consumers are, it's a destination where consumers are going to find upcycled products?” Or on the flip side maybe they see that the trend is a little bit... Maybe marketing something as an upcycled merchandising section isn't quite... The consumer isn't quite ready for that. But I was so excited to learn about that. And definitely, retailers that put that front and center, that's always been a focus for us in supporting them and, you know, supporting that aligned kind of mission to get the word out about upcycled food and why upcycling food is so important.

We do have partnerships with a retailer in New York City called Juice Press. And again, for us, the cool thing about that partnership was the focus on plant-based and organic products, and of course, the fact that they are in New York City, and you can tell our story much more directly about upcycling cold-pressed juice press to make our chips.

So there's been a lot of fun collaboration. We also work with Thrive Market. We work with Imperfect Produce, and, of course, Whole Foods and Target on the West Coast. I guess the last note I would say about that is although we're focused on the specialty and natural channels, really these are line retailers that have stated sustainability values, the reason why we were so excited to work with Target is because not only are they placing greater emphasis on emerging brands and on sustainability but we're actually merchandised in the produce aisle at Target which, for me was super exciting. It means that we're not competing with Frito-Lay and some of these big multinational tortilla chip or traditional chip manufacturers, but we're actually able to differentiate and tell our produce centric story within the produce department of Target. We're merchandised near plant-based chips, we're merchandised near the fruits and vegetables. And it gives us again, a greater reach to that consumer base that we're targeting, which is really the lifestyle of health and sustainability, consumer who put health and sustainability at the center of their values. So, that's been a very exciting partnership for us as well.

Erin: What's next on the horizon for Pulp Pantry? Are you branching out to other food products or just honing in on where you're at right now?

Kaitlin: You know, we definitely have a milestone in mind for the growth of our current veggie chip line. And we haven't quite heard that yet. I think adding on one or two more regions and really being able to see the veggie chip line continue to expand in stores is our primary focus, but we definitely have other categories in mind. And in the past, we did have food scientists and a pastry chef involved in creating some different products opportunities for us. We have our mind on so many areas where we think the promise of upcycled foods could really create a differentiated offering for consumers and one that matches and aligns with not only their values for sustainability but also health and nutrition.

And I think there's just so much opportunity out there for where upcycled foods can make a difference and create a really unique stamp in a product category that currently might be lacking innovation. So, I will be very excited when we get to have a future conversation about some of those, you know, new product launches and, you know, how we approach manufacturing really from the bottom up, I think, or maybe I guess, cutting through the top down. But either way, you know, that's gonna be a very fun adventure to pull the Pulp Pantry brand and continue building upon the innovative offerings that, you know, we're excited about.

Erin: So last question, you were featured as one of Food Processing's entrepreneurs to watch this year. I want to know: if you could give one piece of advice to other food entrepreneurs, what would it be?

Kaitlin: I’m going to reiterate what I feel is important to consumers in the marketplace today, which is leading your brand with values that will essentially resonate with the issues that consumers care about today. Whether it be creating something that's truly differentiated from a nutrition standpoint, and that really provides, you know, benefits to consumer health or we're combining that with the sustainability offering in the fact that so many consumers, they do have climate anxiety and are overwhelmed by feeling, like, what can I do as one person to impact issues, you know, as big as climate change, and big and hairy of climate change? And so I think for fellow entrepreneurs looking to jump into the food and beverage world, it's so essential to route brand building in one of those values.

And I guess my last comment on that would be, there's a huge issue right now with plastic pollution. And I think finding ways that we as brand builders can continue to take responsibility for the kind of dark side of our industry, which is packaging. There's tons of innovation coming out into the space. And I think we, as entrepreneurs and early brand builders have a lot of potential to become early adopters of packaging solutions that can also have a huge impact. My best advice would really be to follow your heart, honestly, and follow your personal values. Don't take no for an answer. There's so much compromise that happens in the industry. But we've all got to find innovative solutions. And I think consumers and press and, you know, the people who are really going to buy into your brand will really celebrate that. And I think it's just the best way to build a competitive edge, but one that's rooted in, you know, authenticity to fight some of the biggest challenges and issues that we face as a society. So I hope that that resonates with people and that, you know, future brand builders really implement some of those considerations into building new brands.

Erin: Well, Kaitlin, thank you so much for being on the Food For Thought podcast with me today. It was really great talking to you and I enjoyed it so much.

Kaitlin: Thank you, Erin, so much for having me and for featuring Pulp Pantry as one of the food entrepreneurs to watch. It's such an honor and absolutely love what you're doing. Love the content that you're putting out and can't wait to become a longtime follower as well.

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