D.C. may be a great hub for good food, but it’s also a huge hub for food waste. Many local businesses are responding to this critical food security issue by rethinking what they can do with landfill-bound fruits and vegetables.
I caught up with Elizabeth Bennett, founder of Fruitcycle, a D.C.-based social enterprise serving up sustainable snacks in the form of apple chips and kale crisps. They not only satisfy late-afternoon cravings and pack a nutritional punch, but are also rooting on the fight against food waste in our nation’s capitol.
The apples and bunches of kale she uses as ingredients are “seconds,” or ugly produce that was once on the verge of being thrown away. Fruitcycle is not only giving opportunities for blemished goods to be redirected into new products, but also has a key social-justice component for women empowerment. While it sources produce that would ultimately go to waste, Fruitcycle provides jobs for women who have been formerly incarcerated, homeless or are otherwise disadvantaged.
Where did the idea for Fruitcycle begin?
It began with a trip to a peach orchard during the summer of 2013. I was astonished by the thousands of pounds of fruit that I saw on the ground in front of me going to waste. The peaches were healthy, presumably delicious, local and nutritious, and here it was going to waste while we had one in six Americans who were hungry at the same time. Those statistics put together is an absolute ridiculous paradox that we have so much food waste, throw out 40% of our food, while this many people go hungry. I thought that maybe there was a way to recover that fruit before it went to waste, and turn it into a shelf-stable product that would be a healthy to boot, and then also something that would become a job opportunity for women who needed them. These were women who may be formerly incarcerated, homeless or at risk of being hungry.
What are your thoughts on the paradox of food that we suffer as a nation?
I’m optimistic that people are starting to talk about it finally, but obviously the fact that food waste still exists is a travesty. We do waste so much food as a country at all levels of the food chain, particularly at the consumer level, where it’s more or less avoidable. I think that some of the other things that are causing food waste definitely need to be addressed from a more systemic approach. But yeah, it’s great that food waste is becoming an issue that more people are talking about, and that there are more organizations such as Fruitcycle coming together to fight this and developing many solutions. Hopefully things will change going forward.
What do you think of the potential for millennials to become aware of food waste and why should they get involved?
I think that they should definitely get involved, and honestly that’s where a lot of this push is coming from. I think that millennials are really interested in food and learning about where it’s coming from and how it’s produced, sort of the more hands-on approach, like learning to can ourselves. I think it’s only natural that millennials care about food waste. Especially because food waste is becoming, as it should, the next environmental issue. Food waste just has so many impacts, it’s not just the food that we’re wasting, it’s all of the inputs that went into that food, whether it’s the water, or the oil that was used to transport it from California to D.C., with many stops in between. Or it’s the fact that if we’re putting food into the landfill, it’s contributing more methane gas. You know, there’s more food in landfills than almost anything else, so it’s creating all sorts of problems for us, really. So, yes, millennials should care about food waste, and I think they will or already do.
How has Fruitcycle been received? Have there been any challenges marketing your brand to people who may be unfamiliar with food waste?
Not necessarily, because food waste has been getting so much attention, people think it’s really great and are supportive of the idea. I know that other people in this space have experienced some hesitation over the fact of people not really understanding why the produce was going to waste and thinking that maybe they were using, you know, rotting fruit or something, which obviously isn’t the case. I’ve never experienced that personally, but everyone that I have interacted with, whether I’m doing demos or at events, they love the mission and think it’s amazing. Especially the tie-in, that we’re not just providing second chances for the produce, but also providing second chances for women and so people really respond positively to both of those things.
Fruitcycle’s mission is “to do good – for its suppliers, its employees, its customers, its community, and its planet.” You spoke about providing not only second chances for the produce, but also for women who have been formerly incarcerated, homeless, or are otherwise disadvantaged. Did this social-justice aspect of sustainability develop in tandem with Fruitcycle?
It was simultaneous, I knew that I was going to combine both of those things when I had the idea. That came about because of the food paradox in the US, and the volunteer work that I had done with various different organizations in D.C., particularly D.C. Central Kitchen—I’m heavily inspired by them, and specifically work I had done there with a case manager who had himself been previously incarcerated. Even though he was male, just the struggles that he faced trying to re-enter into our society, and turn his life around really resonated with me. I had worked with some women in organizations in the city and sort of just combined those two things.
I worked with two non-profits, the first was called Together We Bake, a training program based in Alexandria, Virginia for women who are formerly incarcerated, homeless or otherwise disadvantaged, and my first employee came to me through them. It’s an 8-week long baking-training program where women get their food handlers’ license, learn how to make cookies and granola, and stay in this program centered around empowerment and development. There’s classes on overcoming some of the issues that they face, they do yoga, and some other activities in addition to the production and business side of things. As a side note, as of Jan. 1, Fruitcycle is now a part of Together We Bake. The other nonprofit that I have worked with is N Street Village, a community of empowerment for homeless and low-income women.
When you were developing your product for Fruitcycle, why did you steer towards snacks as opposed to juices or other beverages?
I had the idea, and it took a while for me to get to what the actual products were going to be. When I was first thinking about it, you know, I got the idea from a peach orchard, so I was thinking about peach products—peach chutney, because I had a really good peach chutney recipe, and frozen peach cobbler, because I also had a really good recipe for that. And then I started with apples partly because of timing, so the idea was in 2013, I didn’t actually launch until the fall of 2014, and at that point it was apple season. I was thinking about shrub, are you familiar with that?
No, I’ve never heard of that!
It’s basically a drinking vinegar, a historic, colonial-era way of preservation. It’s fruit, vinegar and sugar—I know it sounds revolting, but they’re primarily used as cocktail mixers or for mixing with soda water for an Italian soda, so I made a bunch of shrub. I realized ultimately that it wasn’t the right product for me for a few reasons, one of which was from a consumer education standpoint, although there are now quite a few shrub companies in D.C., naturally! But then somehow I ended up at snacks. Healthy snacking is really important to me, and with hunger, there’s a general correlation with obesity because of the quality of food that people are getting, and as someone who is concerned with health and nutrition, healthy snacks just made sense, especially given how snacking is so prevalent in our culture now. People are eating more snacks than they are meals, so it made sense from a business perspective as well as a personal mission. Simultaneously I realized that I could dehydrate as a preservation method, and so, apple chips it was. It’s super healthy, I only mix the apples with cinnamon, we don’t add any sugar or preservatives or anything, and people are always really astonished by that because when they try them the natural sweetness of the apple comes out.
Where do you see the future of Fruitcycle going?
So we just merged with Together We Bake, effective Jan. 1, and that’s been going really well. I’m so happy with how it turned out because now I have the opportunity to have a positive impact on the lives of more women with the training program. Going forward, Fruitcycle is very much tied to the future of Together We Bake now, and I think that there is a possibility of some new products down the line. Together We Bake makes granola, we make apple chips, why don’t we make a granola with apple chips in it, for example. Last summer, also, I did a variety of jarred products sort of as an experiment. I wanted to preserve the bounty of summer fruit that was available, so I think that that’s another area where we can use some of those recipes.
More importantly than that, I think that ultimately down the road, we need our own facility. Together We Bake currently operates out of a church kitchen, so we need to eventually move into our own space that will enable us to increase our capacity thereby taking in more women as trainees and/or as employees from our graduates of the TWB program. If we have a larger kitchen space, it helps spread our mission. And maybe down the line, it would be great to replicate this model in other cities.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
This is part three of a six-part series. Waste Not Wednesday is a community engagement project created by Ayse Muratoglu, a 2015-2016 Emerging Leader for Food Security for the Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge Program. The yearlong program takes 10 college sophomores who will work with Land O’Lakes experts to explore issues of food security, and find ways to feed the world. To learn more about the Global Food Challenge, join the conversation at http://foodchallenge.landolakesinc.com/