Creating a Surplus Food R&D Center to Fuel Academic Commitment to Sustainability

In the past few years, important government agencies like The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation and ReFED, have asserted the importance of reducing food waste to achieve sustainability goals and feed growing populations. Now that a foundation of awareness exists, it’s time to find scalable solutions.

However, there is a common problem plaguing food recovery conversations, as many ideas fail to take into account the issues of food safety, culinary appeal, marketing, and nutritional value.

Jonathan Deutsch, PhD, founder and director of the Drexel Food Lab is a professor in the Center for Food and Hospitality Management.

Enter Drexel University’s Food Lab.

The Drexel Food Lab is a “good food” product development and culinary innovation lab that unites students studying culinary arts, hospitality management, food science, nutrition and related fields with industry leaders and faculty. This structure facilitates collaboration among chefs and scientists, as well as experts in food law, nutrition, marketing, and health – making it uniquely positioned to leverage its interdisciplinary resources to offer practical, feasible, and scalable solutions to the problems of food waste.

“Our vision is to create a Surplus Food R&D Center that engages students and faculty to do applied research on consumer acceptance, product development and innovation, food safety, and health and nutrition of value-added products made from surplus food,” said Jonathan Deutsch, PhD,  a professor in the Center for Food and Hospitality Management and Department of Nutrition Sciences and founder of the Drexel Food Lab.

The center will work by taking foods and food byproducts that are often considered to be trash and develop them into safe, healthy, cost-effective and desirable products that an entrepreneur, social enterprise or established food company could take to market. It will also develop culinary applications for products like these that already exist.

A grant from The Claneil Foundation will establish the Surplus Food R&D Center at Drexel, and support its initiatives for two years. The grant will assist with the development of upcycled food products, the training of students in the Drexel Food Lab to work with these products and the publication of a food system sensitive model.

An upcycled dish made from ingredients destined for the trash bin.

There is nutritional value to discarded items and we want to transfer that to humans, not a garbage bin, explained Deutsch.

“The Drexel Food Lab has a successful track record when it comes to developing viable products from recovered food,” said Andrea Bretting, a senior program officer at The Claneil Foundation.

“Our organizations are a natural fit, and we look forward to supporting Drexel in our shared goals of addressing hunger relief, reducing food waste and creating healthier communities.”

Past projects from the Drexel Food Lab include work with Baldor Specialty Foods, Love Beets Powder and retail produce.

“The industry contracts and collaborative grants stemming from pro bono work gives our students these amazing opportunities to take a traditional item and give it a new life with a purpose,” said Rosemary Trout, Culinary Arts & Food Science program director and assistant clinical professor. “An under-valued item like beets, which has a great nutritional profile is transformed into a more accessible hummus or a healthier red velvet cupcake batter.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Food Recovery Hierarchy

“We are investigating a number of different solutions — among the most promising, is to keep surplus food at the top of the EPA’s food recovery hierarchy by making value-added products from surplus food,” said Deutsch. “Current cost-neutral or cost-carrying efforts like composting or donating surplus food often results in food being wasted by the agency or post-consumer level.”

This is particularly true for produce and baked goods, commonly pulled from supermarket shelves to be composted, donated or transferred to landfill.

Students create cohesive plates from surplus ingredients.

In addition, the introduction of a market-driven solution where surplus food (waste) can be converted into a value-added food product has the potential to create opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship, as well as lowering environmental impacts.

In fact, ReFED, a data-driven nonprofit committed to reducing U.S. food waste, estimates this solution could also be a burgeoning $18 billion market.

“Bruised and misshapen fruit, like ‘overripe’ bananas still maintain nutrients that ought to be harnessed to address food insecurities,” said Ally Zeitz, manager of the Drexel Food Lab. “These unwanted products can be transformed into cobblers, jams and apple sauce, food products that taste good, that people will want to eat.”


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