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Is Upcycled Food the Answer? (Transcript)


[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.


[00:00:26] Liz: Hi everyone, this is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Turner Wyatt, CEO from the Upcycled Food Association. It's an organization which aims to eliminate food waste by increasing the size of the upcycle food economy, and excited to say that Turner is also a 2020 Waste360 40 Under 40 winner. Welcome, Turner, thanks for being on the show today.

[00:00:50] Turner Wyatt: Thanks for having me. Thank you so much, my pleasure to be here.

[00:00:54] Liz: We usually start at the beginning, please tell me a little bit about your background and what sparked your passion for food waste and recovery?

[00:01:02] Turner: Thank you. I started in the nonprofit food rescue space. When I was still in undergrad I co-founded a very beloved food recovery organization in Denver, Colorado, my home town, called Denver Food Rescue. Over the seven years that I served as the executive director of that really amazing organization I learned so much, I met so many amazing people in this work and was so inspired, it has left a permanent mark on my heart for anyone who is working in hunger relief, food security and food waste reduction.

At the same time, it also made me frustrated because philanthropy is a system in its own, and it's not necessarily the best system to solve big global problems like food waste. What I mean there is that, who controls philanthropy? Well, rich people who have money to donate. By funding our solutions through philanthropy, we're basically saying, "Hey, rich people, decide for us whether you want to solve this big problem of food waste or not." Many of the times, as a small organization nonprofit, you hear from philanthropists and your funders the not, "We're not funding this anymore. We've changed our priorities", or, "We want to fund something innovative".

For those of us that are really on the front lines of these huge environmental and social problems like food insecurity and food waste, it becomes really frustrating eventually to know we're not funding that anymore because we are innovative, we are doing amazing things. I became disillusioned and eventually said, "Why are we leading this up to philanthropy to solve?" because the people have spoken on these issues, people care about food waste, regular people care about these issues, so why don't we put the solution to big environmental problems like food waste into the hands of people?

That's when I started wondering and going on this vision quest of what are the more scalable solutions to food waste. That's when I got exposed to food upcycling. About a year ago, I started connecting with various upcycle to food entrepreneurs, just docking them on LinkedIn and asking them, "Hey, how's business? How's everything going? Where's this all headed?", and started to notice some patterns that really all these upcycle food businesses are experiencing more or less the same challenges, they are having a hard time messaging their products, they have some policy barriers that they're experiencing.

Generally, there's this sense of a rising tide raises all ships, but no one was focusing on the tide, of course, because everyone's focusing on their own business as they should. This group of 10 businesses that I was interviewing decided, really, to come together and form an organization whose goal it was just to focus on the tide, thus to work on the infrastructure of the actual industry versus helping to support one business at a time, and that's exactly what they did. Just about 100 days ago, these businesses came together to officially form the Upcycled Food Association, which is a non-profit trade association whose mission is to reduce food waste by growing the upcycle food economy.

I have the honor and the challenge of leading this organization, which I feel gratified in doing because I feel that it is the perfect solution to my frustrations in my path throughout my experiences in food waste direction, in the sense that this is really the people's solution to food waste, because we're putting the solution to food waste right in the hands of ordinary people who care about this issue and who can take direct action simply by changing their purchase behavior and including upcycle foods in their shopping cart.

[00:06:00] Liz: That's fantastic, I love the grassroots nature of how this was formed. You talked about the infrastructure, can you dig into that a little bit and tell me what your vision for building that infrastructure is? What that possibly could look like?

[00:06:17] Turner: Yes, absolutely. The cliche analogy that I use comes from one of our board members, Dan Kurzrock who is the CEO of ReGrained, which is a great company that uses spent brewer's grain to make a really nutrient-dense flour. He says, "If each business in this upcycled food industry is a skyscraper, the Association is doing the municipal plumbing." We're working on the behind the scenes unsexy work that doesn't necessarily interact with everyday people on a day-to-day basis, but that is critical in making the industry successful across the board that's building out the fabric between individual businesses so that the people within each of these businesses can do nothing other than focus on their own success, just like any other business.

They need this extra support because what they're doing is so innovative, new and novel. Many of these ingredients that upcycle food businesses are creating are brand-new, the government has never had to deal with regulating them and product developers have never had to deal with how to package them. There's these across-the-board issues that really apply to everyone who's dealing in any way with upcycling, and it's our goal as an organization to alleviate those barriers so that upcycled foods can become more ubiquitous, more generally understood and more demanded all over the world.

[00:08:09] Liz: Fantastic. I think you've dabbled in your own upcycled food, can you tell us a little bit about what you did with the bagels?

[00:08:19] Turner: Yes. When I was in the peak of my frustration with philanthropy, I decided, "I'm going to do this on my own", and anyone who works in hunger relief and food rescue will tell you that the number one most oversupplied item is baked goods. This is a problem because biscuits tend to not be the most healthy and, therefore, it doesn't really make sense to make them overabundantly accessible in low-income communities where dairy related illness is already disproportionately impactful.

Aside from that, it's really not low-income people's responsibility to solve this big environmental problem with food waste for us, so it's our responsibility to come up with ways to use especially these oversupplied, unhealthy- not necessarily unhealthy, but things that shouldn't be oversupplied like baked goods, make sure that we have solutions for them and that we're not putting the solution on the shoulders of someone else.

I thought, "Well, what if we created a company that was entirely focused on reducing bread waste?" Not just food waste of any kind, but bread waste specifically. One of the most wasted types of foods that we see in food recovery is bagels, because everyone wants fresh bagels, they're made fresh every day at every bagel shop across the world and at the end of the day, if you've ever worked in a bagel shop, you know that there's a hundred plus that will go to waste. The staff takes them home and tries to give them to their family or their roommates and everyone who is involved in this system is just exhausted by the waste of bagels.

Meanwhile, if you've ever seen a Bagel Chip in a grocery store, it's not made from a bagel, it's made specifically to be a Bagel Chip which, given how many bagels go to waste on a day-to-day basis, I thought was just totally ridiculous. We started this business called Twice Rounds and it still operates in a very small capacity, not by me, but by the people who I co-founded the business with, I'm no longer involved, but the business is operating there in Denver in a small capacity.

I found it to be really challenging to start a business like that. Through the humbling learning experience of getting that very small business off the ground, my appreciation and admiration for those of our members in the upcycled food industry who have been successful, just doubled and tripled on the spot, because they have really done something amazing taking an innovative, novel ingredient, taking it to market and ultimately getting it to consumers. It's a really challenging business to be in, so the fact that our members are doing it with really innovative new ideas is even more amazing.

[00:11:48] Liz: That is amazing. I love the analogy of what you said earlier about one of your board members, in describing what you're doing in terms of the infrastructure and you're building the municipal plumbing. It sounds like you're going to tackle policy initiatives, is that true with USA?

[00:12:08] Turner: Yes. Our programming is split into four core areas that were all picked by our members. Our members are businesses that upcycle food products. They're also businesses who don't necessarily upcycle their own food, but who are invested in the industry somehow, product developers, investors, or design firms, what have you. There's this whole growing movement of businesses who are all really bowing or vying for the success of the industry, and our job at the Association is to support all of these businesses.

These businesses, our members, have complete control over a lot of the actions that we take, which we think is a really good thing because they're the ones with day-to-day lived experience, they have to deal with these problems on a day-to-day basis. Since they're going to be the ones most affected by our decisions, they deserve to be the ones who have the most power in answering those questions. They came up with these four main program areas, networking, communications, policy, and infrastructure.

Policy is the one that we're actually, least active in right now, because remember, we just started about a hundred days ago. We're using this first year of 2020 to just research the environment, figure out what are the best ways that we can use policy as a lever to help us accomplish our mission of reducing food waste by growing the upcycled food economy, but right now we're not actively lobbying for anything and we're just in the research stage. However, in the other three program categories, networking, communications, and infrastructure, we do have active programming in all of those. I'd be happy to talk about the other programming options that we have going on, if you'd like.

[00:14:10] Liz: Yes. I think that would be helpful for everyone to hear how that's broken down.

[00:14:14] Turner: Silos of this program categories are not always clean-cut breaks between different programs, so sometimes there's some overlap there. Basically, what we have going on is ultimately we're trying to grow this industry of upcycled food, so how do you do that? It all starts with the consumer. We know that consumers want to buy more upcycled food, in fact, 60% of people want to buy more upcycled food, and that's because 95% of people care about food waste.

I think that's remarkable, because this is a brand-new term that a lot of people have never even heard before, and already more than half of people want to buy more upcycled food. That shows us that there's a huge opportunity if only we can message and market upcycled food in the right way and present it to consumers in a way that's going to resonate with them. Help them understand that, yes, this is help aligned with my sustainability values and it's helping me accomplish the third most important thing that I can do to address climate change, and that's to reduce food waste.

That's one of my favorite stats ever, that reducing food waste is ahead of solar energy, it's ahead of regenerative agriculture or a plant-based diet, reducing food waste number three out of all, according to Project Drawdown. It all starts with the consumer and giving them the ability to interact with this concept of upcycled food. The way that we're doing that, currently -this goes under our communications silo- is creating a suite of consumer education tools that's paired with a product certification program.

Starting this October, you're actually going to start seeing certified upcycled products on the shelf in your grocery store, where you'll see a little logo that is on the package, that's on the businesses website, that's on their social media, and it helps the consumer understand, "Oh, this is a product that is that thing that I've been hearing about, upcycled food, I've been learning about it through these retail partnerships and through consumer education campaigns and now here it is, right here in front of me. I have the choice to buy either a regular cookie, bar, beverage or the upcycle version of it. Because I care about sustainability, I'm going to choose to purchase the upcycled version because it helps to reduce food waste".

That is a lot of the communication stuff that we're working on for this year, to generally increase the awareness of upcycled food. We have such a powerful tool here, we just want everyone to know that a really powerful solution, the third most important thing that you can be doing in climate change is right at your fingertips when you're in the grocery store, we just want to make that choice really obvious to folks. That's one of the most important things that we're doing in 2020.

We're also doing some research and going to be providing analysis to our members, insights, helping to build out some infrastructure around communications and some other really exciting things. It'll all culminate, we're really excited, for October when we'll launch the product certification program.

[00:17:37] Liz: That's fantastic. Good for you, you have to keep us posted on that initiative and how it goes.

[00:17:42] Turner: Yes, it'll be my pleasure. The most, truly, indicative way of seeing the update on the program will be to just look in your grocery store for when you start seeing certified upcycled products.

[00:17:55] Liz: Absolutely. For your 40under40 nomination, one thing that really stood out to me and this is what it said about you, "Turner is defining a new market segment for food waste. I think he's going to make upcycled food more popular than organic food has ever been, virtually eliminating food waste by virtue of making it too valuable to exist". That's pretty amazing and lofty at the same time. You're talking about ways that you're doing this, but do you really feel you're on your way to doing this? What do you think lies ahead in terms of the challenge? I know you talked about communication and awareness, how else will you do this?

[00:18:36] Turner: Well, that is definitely very lofty. I think that we have a big opportunity to do something really amazing with the upcycled food industry by bringing the businesses who are doing this work together and collaborating. However, it's really not me who's doing that, or even the businesses themselves, it's consumers, it's regular people who want to buy upcycled food products.

There's a really interesting study that came out of Drexel in 2017, that was the first boom for this industry that made people raise their eyebrows and think, "Wow, maybe there's a big opportunity here." The study said a few things, it was a sociological study that looked into the way that consumers understand upcycled food. It showed that consumers understand upcycled food as a standalone food category, analogous to conventional or organic. It also showed that consumers have greater positive association with impact on the environment, and others with the word upcycled when compared to organic.

I'll say it again because it's confusing. Consumers have a greater positive association with regard to a positive impact on others in the environment with the word upcycled than organic. Just imagine how big of an opportunity you're dealing with if it can even be digested, whispered that it's a bigger opportunity than organic has been. Organic it's decades-old tradition that has taken many farmers across the world and has literally changed the chemistry of our soil on this movement towards organic food and has impacted billions of people's lives. Upcycle food could be even a bigger opportunity in that.

It's not because the Upcycled Food Association exists, although we need to encourage that kind of behavior and those patterns, it's really because of the natural tendencies of consumers. Drexel wasn't trying to influence anyone when they did the study, they were just trying to figure out what to consumers naturally think right now, before this industry has even really taken form. What they found was so encouraging and it's what you would expect, honestly, that people don't like food waste.

Again, Mattson, an associate member at the Association and a leading product developer, did a study that found 95% of people care about food waste. That is truly amazing and I think that it just speaks to this inherent natural tendency for people to not want to waste food, it doesn't make sense for humans to waste food and I think it's written into our DNA not waste food.

Yes, this industry has a huge opportunity, it could be the next generation of sustainable food, bigger a movement than organic food. I think that by the formation of the Upcycled Food Association, our chances of creating that vision for the future have increased tremendously. However, at the end of the day, it's called on what people want to eat, and people apparently really want to eat upcycle food.

We don't really have to fight our way upstream to make that happen, all we have to do is use that, that natural tendency that people have to not want to waste food, connect them in an authentic way to that solution and it's going to take off on its own.

[00:22:38] Liz: Yes, I think you're right. Beyond that, just wanting to waste food, people want to buy products where they feel they're serving the greater good. I think that combination is fantastic and will serve all of us well. Turner, what keeps you inspired to make change happen? I know it's not always easy and I love your energy, but it can be hard at times.

[00:22:59] Turner: Yes, no doubt. Well, I would first say that I think I'm very privileged to be able to think about these issues from afar. There's obviously many people when they think about climate change, environmental change and social problems, they're not experiencing it from a "Oh, that's an issue that happens out there and it's our responsibility to solve it", they're just experiencing it, it sucks. Really the ability to live a life where we get to think about solving these issues is really quite a privilege.

Of course, quite a privilege that I'm in a position where I get to not be experiencing the worst parts of climate change, environmental disaster, hunger, food insecurity on a daily basis. It's really quite my responsibility to be working on these issues.

What keeps me inspired is really climate change. I'm an environmentalist, in school I studied energy in the environment, I live in a small mountain town, I ski every day, I'm a big runner, climber and mountain biker, for me it's about our land and keeping it healthy and our people. I'm really inspired by science, and when all of those things can come together, that's what gets me really excited.

Again, I cared about food waste before, but when Project Drawdown came out and said, "Look, reducing food waste is actually the third most important thing that we can do to address climate change ahead of all of these other things, like solar energy that typically we associate being the most important things that we can do", that's when it really solidified for me, is like "Okay, this is my life's work, this is where I need to focus my energy because there's really no better way for me, to be focusing my energy on helping the environment and people".

[00:25:24] Liz: I love that. Do you consider yourself a serial entrepreneur? Or serial social entrepreneur?

[00:25:32] Turner: I could take that title on, I suppose. During the time that I was at Denver Food Rescue, I was also lucky enough to co-found Twice Rounds, the Bagel Chip social enterprise. I was also lucky enough to be a part of the co-founding team for another food recovery nonprofit called Fresh Food Connect, which is a really amazing tool that allows food recovery organizations to increase the amount of fresh produce that they're accessing in their inventory, therefore, providing to their people by rescuing food from backyard gardens.

Backyard gardens produce the highest quality food imaginable, what's better than homegrown, and yet a lot of it goes to waste. This tool, Fresh Food Connect, is something that any food recovery organization can easily integrate into their programming, and access a whole lot of really high-quality homegrown produce right from their community. That organization is going strong and I really encourage listeners, especially food recovery folks, to look us up. I was also lucky enough to be involved with the co-founding of an organization called Bondadosa, which uses technology to help the Latino community in Denver, Colorado access healthier food.

I've definitely had my hands in a good number of social enterprises in the food space, mainly food waste space already. I struggle to resonate with serial entrepreneur, because typically I think of those people taking a bunch of money from their previous project, and investing it into some new thing that makes a bunch of money. For me, it hasn't really been about the money, it's been about how do we create authentic solutions. That is an uphill battle sometimes, because when you're creating authentic solutions you spend a lot of time convincing people of your solution.

What I really love about upcycled food is that you don't really have to convince anyone of anything, it's the same language that business and people already speak. We've been talking about how people naturally care about food waste, well, businesses naturally care about food waste too because for them it's a financial loss. You don't have to convince someone, even a big food company that doesn't care about climate change or food waste at all, you don't have to convince them to care about those things, all you have to do is say, "Look, here's how much money you're wasting on a daily basis." They really are wasting billions and billions of dollars, so why not turn those billions of dollars into new opportunities that can help grow business, that can help increase sustainability.

The reason I love upcycled food is that it's this rare place where the environment and business really inherently overlap. Those are the places that really need to be exploited right now, we don't have time anymore to be overlooking these easy wins, we need to go for the easy wins. The time to take advantage of the easy wins is yesterday, so places where the environment, consumer values, and business values inherently overlap, already overlap, that's where we got to focus our attention. It's so easy and that's why we're seeing this industry grow so fast.

[00:29:27] Liz: Absolutely. I interviewed the CEO of Lovin' Spoonfuls the other day and she said something very similar, she said, "Food waste is simple, this is a fixable problem, we just need to pay more attention to it and create infrastructure and programs to get it done", you're singing a similar tune and it's true.

What advice do you have for people who want to foster sustainability in their own world? Whether it's launching something big like you're doing or just something smaller in their own corner of their world?

[00:30:02] Turner: Yes. Again, the reason that I love upcycled food is that really some ways is the most accessible solution to food waste because it's not centralized in these power hubs of philanthropy or anyone business or organization, it totally democratizes it and says, "Look, the solution is in the hands of regular people, people who buy food".

Of course, I think speaking on upcycled food products, replacing your conventional alternatives with upcycled versions of existing products is something that you're going to see more and more happening, I encourage people to do because it really is taking part in the reduction of food waste, third most important thing that you can do to address climate change.

What I hope that the social message that we are able to have within the upcycled food industry, upon consumers would be, is that, "Look, this is your solution." It looks like, yes, donating your money to organizations that are fighting food waste and food insecurity, and it also means changing your behavior in other ways, like buying upcycled food products versus non upcycled food products.

Generally, using upcycled food, and that very familiar process that we all know of buying food in a grocery store, do make more accessible the solution and show, "Look, you're participating in the solution of food waste when you're in line at the grocery store", and generally using that message to say, "Yes, this is your solution".

Hopefully, that will reverberate in other parts of people's lives and we'll see people taking personal responsibility for food waste across their lives, not just segmenting it, as we often see with environmental and social problems. We segment it, we close it off, we put it in one section of our lives and we say, "I'm doing my part because I made a donation, I volunteer or I'm doing this one thing over here, and then the rest of my life; just leave me alone, let me live in peace." We really don't have time for that kind of attitude anymore, we need a holistic embracing of solutions, and that's really what we are seeking to build here.

[00:32:54] Liz: That's fantastic. You've had a heck of a first hundred days. I know you've talked about some of the things you'll be focusing on, but what would make us successful next hundred days for the Upcycled Food Association?

[00:33:09] Turner: We're operating on a pretty short-horizon at the moment, because things are just moving so fast. Like I said, by the end a year we're launching a product certification program. More proximal is defining upcycled food, there's no official definition for upcycled food, so we're working with government, academia, industry and our members to define officially upcycled food. Very soon here in the next couple of months, we're going to be releasing an official definition that can be used by anyone and everyone for policy discussions, advocacy, organizations, and anyone can use this definition. That's an exciting thing that's happening in the next hundred days.

We're also continuing to grow our membership, we've grown up to almost 50 members in the last hundred days. Originally our goal was 75 members by the end of 2020, I think we are going to exceed that, and that really just speaks to how relevant what we're providing is to our members because it's the barriers that they're facing on a day to day basis. I think we could even double our membership in the next hundred days. Don't hold me to do that because it is an arduous process growing this network out, but we have been really pleased to see how fast our membership has grown, we want to encourage that.

[00:34:50] Liz: That's fantastic. I have a feeling you'll do it, Turner [laughs].

[00:34:54] Turner: Thank you so much, thanks for your support, is my honor to be Waste360's 40under40, I really appreciate that. I first and foremost appreciated it because it showed that you all were looking beyond the surface level of what it means to be active in this industry. Even for someone like me who's doubled in a few different types of solutions, between food rescue and upcycled food, etcetera. Like I said, we need holistic embracing of solutions and I very much appreciate you all highlighting the work that I've done. It's been a really fun journey.

Too many people to thank, that have supported me and allowed me to get where I am. I might promise to all of those people is that I'm not going to stop until we make big change.

[00:35:57] Liz: I think that's amazing. Your award is well deserved and you've done so much already at such a young age, we can't wait to see what lies ahead for you and for the Upcycled Food Association. Now can you tell our listeners where they can hear more from you and the Association?

[00:36:14] Turner: Yes, absolutely. Our website is www.UpcycledFood.org. There's more information there, you can sign up for our newsletter that comes out monthly, and has a lot of really good information. It also has links to our member's websites, I really encourage you to look at all of their websites, research their products and look where they're sold. Many of them are sold online, so you can buy them even if they're not sold in a grocery store in your part of the woods.

Just a reminder, that it's really our members who are the ones building this solution, we're just helping connect them and coordinate them. At the end of the day, it's their success that's the most meaningful, so do look up our members, which the links to their websites are on our website www.UpcycledFood.org. You can also follow us on LinkedIn, another good way to get involved.

[00:37:12] Liz: Thank you so much. Congrats again on your well-deserved award, I look forward to celebrating your big win it at WasteExpo and watching what else you do.

[00:37:23] Turner: Yes, I'm excited to meet everyone in person in New Orleans. Thanks so much again, to everyone at Waste360 for the incredible honor.

[00:37:32] Liz: You're welcome, so well-deserved, you're really inspiring so many people, so keep it up. I love how you're not just doing good things, but you've really put out a call to action to others do the same, and I think it's going to have the exact effect you're looking for, so great job.

[00:37:47] Turner: Thank you so much, I really appreciate that. My pleasure.

[00:37:49] Liz: Good luck with everything, I'll see you soon.

[00:37:52] Turner: Same to you, thanks so much.

[00:37:53] Liz: Okay, bye-bye.




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