Upcycled Food: Working to elevate food to its highest value and best use

It’s cliche at this point: “2020, what a year to start a business!” This year, I’ve heard from a lot of entrepreneurs who’ve had to delay plans, pivot, or flat-out scrap the launch of their great idea because of, well, 2020. I empathize with these folks, and I applaud their often-creative solutions, but to date I haven’t heard of a single other association getting started in this intense and unpredictable year.

If starting a business in 2020 is hard, starting a trade association during a global pandemic must be damn near impossible, right? As an industry association nonprofit, we feel the effects of the pandemic, but compounded. After all, we’re an organization, based on other struggling organizations. The cherry on top is being in the food industry, which felt its biggest disruption in decades this year.

I’m not complaining. In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Upcycled Food Association (UFA) is about collaboration, creativity, and unity. And if there has been anything positive about 2020, it’s been watching the human spirit reach out for connectedness, despite masks and social distancing.

This month, we celebrate our first birthday at UFA. One year ago, nine co-founding businesses came together to form the first food industry association dedicated to reducing food waste. Today, we are a network of more than 100 member businesses across 15 countries. We added a word to the dictionary when we officially defined “upcycled food.” We’re getting ready to launch a revolutionary product certification program. Yep, I’d say 2020 was the right year to launch!

To describe how we got here, I’ll start with the philosophy that led to the creation of UFA: upcycling. It’s the basic, ancient tradition that gave us bread crumbs, tortilla chips, sausage, and vegetable stock: the urge to use all the food we have. It’s based on the human instinct to not waste food; it irks us when we see someone at the table next to us leave a full plate of perfectly good food at the restaurant, instead of taking it for leftovers. It’s what causes 95% of people to want to reduce food waste in their lives, according to Mattson. Upcycling is nothing fancy, in fact it’s quite simple. Just elevate all food to its highest value and best use.

But it’s not just a philosophy, it’s a food category. So said a 2017 study from Drexel University, which raised eyebrows and inspired action within the food system. The study found that 1) Consumers conceive of “upcycled food” as a stand alone food category, and, in fact, 2) they perceive that food category as better than conventional food.

This was a significant finding for many reasons, but the most important to me was the implications it had on the role of consumers in reducing food waste. Until now, our food waste movement had been based on food rescue and hunger relief organizations, who pick up otherwise-wasted food from restaurants, retailers, and wholesalers, and deliver it to people experiencing food insecurity. (Here’s another thing we can thank 2020 for: finally appreciating the impact these organizations have been making for decades.) Before coming to UFA, I spent seven years as the executive director of Denver Food Rescue, so I know the importance of food donation in solving two important issues: hunger and food waste.

But there’s a lot of food that goes to waste that you can’t donate. Spent grain, juice pulps, and other byproducts from manufacturing and agriculture contribute to the 40% of all food that goes to waste, but we can’t show up to a food pantry with a bunch of avocado pits expecting to create “the single greatest solution to climate change,” as reducing food waste was named in 2020 by Project Drawdown.

Just because you can’t donate these foods doesn’t mean they don’t have value. All 100 Members and Associate Members of UFA have found creative ways to unlock the value in foods previously going to waste. How much is all this food worth? The two best guesses we have are:

1) $940 billion per year (FAO)

2) $1.2 trillion per year (Boston Consulting Group)

So let’s say about a trillion dollars per year. If that’s the value of food going to waste every year, it’s also the potential size of the economy of commercializing otherwise wasted food. Late 2019, Future Market Insights predicted the current size of the economy surrounding food waste reduction to be about $46 billion dollars, and predicted a 5% compound annual growth rate. The most significant detail about that study was that it was done before UFA was formed. Our role is to accelerate that growth.

The growth comes from a new opportunity for consumers to play a major role in reducing food waste. What if consumers could participate in the single greatest solution to climate change every time they visit a grocery store, just by choosing the right products? Will consumers buy in? Early results look positive. A recent study done by a major retailer found that 80% of consumers were interested in buying upcycled foods. At UFA, we envision a shopper of the not-too-distant future, whose cart is filled with products from every aisle, which all help to reduce food waste. Human food, pet food, personal care products, home goods…all made from food that would otherwise be wasted. That’s the future we’re building.

In order for consumers to be able to make the conscious decision to align their sustainability values with their purchases, they have to know which products have the best impact. Behold the rationale for the upcycled food certification. This program, to be launched at the end of 2020, will increase access to and visibility of upcycled products, so consumers know that they are contributing to the solution. The certification is being designed by a world-class standards committee, and will clearly communicate to the consumer how much food waste is being reduced simply by purchasing the upcycled product. What will 2021 bring? We don’t know, but we expect that consumers around the world will begin to see, find, and seek out, upcycled products.

2020 was a lesson in humility, because it challenged the status quo, and our unrealistic expectations that growth and success are inevitable. Well, success isn’t inevitable, but apparently our chances are greatly improved when we work together. I used to say that the mantra of the upcycled food movement was “elevate.” Perhaps after 2020, it should be changed to “elevate, together.”

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