Hector Saldivar, the Monterrey, Mexico-born founder of Tia Lupita, hopes one day cactus tortillas will be as common as any other tortilla option. His nopales tortillas are not only nutrient-rich, but hardy, and his other products, in particular his cactus chips, are quite popular on Amazon, he says. “Cactus is as nutritious as moringa, goji berries, or kelp,” Saldivar says. “These tortillas are some of the most sustainable in the world.”
The tortillas also use another key ingredient: okara flour. Okara, or soy pulp, is a derivative of the tofu-making process — the flour is made by drying and mashing all the extra soy into a powder, a prime example of an upcycled food product. A 2013 United Nations report on food waste found there are about 1.3 billion tons of edible food waste produced each year; upcycling aims to chip away at that number by transforming waste into a usable material again. Saldivar is just one of a growing cohort of Bay Area food producers building a community of businesses and restaurants that put the theory of reducing waste by upcycling food into practice. The group also includes Shuggie’s, the newly opened Mission pizzeria started by the couple behind Ugly Pickles, and Good Use, an upcycled juicing company launched in Dogpatch in 2016.
Caroline Cotto took up arms in the upcycling food movement in 2016. She’s a co-founder of Oakland’s Renewal Mill and started the company when she and Claire Schlemme, also behind Boston-based food truck Mother Juice, grew appalled by the amount of pulp produced as a byproduct of making juice. Schlemme was already turning Mother Juice’s would-be waste into muffins and crackers — but there was just too much. So Schlemme formed a bond with Minh Tsai, CEO of Oakland’s Hodo Foods, one of the country’s largest tofu producers. The two entrepreneurs shared their concerns about the runoff their products formed, and Renewal Mill was born alongside the company’s flagship product okara flour.
Okara is full of fiber and protein but gets “arbitrarily labeled as waste,” Cotto explains. The young company worked with East Bay chef Alice Medrich, who had just put out a book on alternative baking methods, when they launched. Medrich’s insights guided the company’s split-offering model: On one side, they form partnerships with businesses to bring upcycled flours to new audiences, and on the other, they sell baking mixes and ready-to-eat cookies made with upcycled flours such as pea starch from discarded peas. But the Renewal Mill team hopes the movement grows beyond their own efforts.
“Consumer awareness is still a huge piece,” Cotto says. “There’s been monumental progress made in the last 18 months to educate retailers about upcycled food, but I think if you surveyed the average consumer I think there’s still very little knowledge about what upcycled means and its impact.”
Renewal Mill’s successes at reducing waste — and making money while at it — has led to a few notable partnerships, including the most recent with ice cream company Salt and Straw, which uses Renewal Mill flour for its Chocolate Salted Caramel Cupcake flavor, and with Saldivar’s Tia Lupita, which is incorporating Renewal Mill’s okara flour into tortillas. Saldivar is also working with Bay Area company ReGrained to put out an upcycled flour tortilla, using upcycled wheat and barley by-waste from beer.
Daniel Kurzrock, one of ReGrained’s founders, says upcycling is about making the market work for your company and the world. “It’s easy to get excited even if you’re just a food business looking to make money,” Kurzrock says. Kurzrock maintains consumers and investors can get involved for a range of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with saving the planet. He started his company in 2010, when he wanted to figure out what to do with all the spent grains from his dorm room-brewing experiments at UCLA. Ten years later ReGrained makes its own snacks and partners with companies to upcycle around half a million pounds of food each year, using the same split-offering model as Renewal Mill.
Cotto knows consumers are skeptical about what could be another trend. That’s why Cotto and Kurzrock helped put together the Upcycled Food Association in June 2021. In the first nine months of the organization, a group of professionals looking to coordinate companies to implement upcycling in their own products similar to the Non-GMO Project, they’ve certified almost 200 upcycled products from dog treats to household staples like Del Monte’s Foods’ green beans.
The group’s goal is to highlight companies already doing upcycling while leveraging market value to convince other companies to join the effort. So far the list includes three baking mixes under Kroger’s Simple Truth brand, one of the association’s biggest wins so far. Imperfect Foods, the popular grocery delivery company launched in San Francisco, is a member, letting customers know they’ve saved 145,823,731 pounds of food by the company’s count. “It’s important to us that people avoid greenwashing,” Cotto says. “We’ve put a lot of effort into making sure there is integrity behind this term. Tracing the supply chain to make sure there is tangible environmental impact is huge.”
All three entrepreneurs insist upcycling is about using business as an instrument for change; it’s not just a fad, and it’s not just a marketing tactic, they agree. “The climate crisis, in general, is a market failure,” Kurzrock says. “But food waste specifically is a market failure. Innovation is happening to combat that.”