Waste Not, Want Not
How Renewal Mill is addressing the problem of food waste by upcycling okara, a byproduct of tofu production, into delicious treats.
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By this point, we’re all familiar with the concept of recycling. And hopefully most of us are aware of the problem of food waste, especially here in the United States. But are you familiar with the next big thing in sustainability—upcycling?
According to a task force of professionals from across multiple disciplines, “Upcycled foods use ingredients that would not otherwise have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable food chains, and have a positive impact on the environment.” In simpler language, upcycling means taking by products that are normally discarded and turning them into healthy foods that help to save the world.
At least that’s how Claire Schlemme sees it. While running an organic juice company, she was frustrated by all the perfectly nutritious pulp that was thrown out every day. Her interest in solving the issue of food waste was given a new direction by a chance meeting with the owner of a tofu factory and an introduction to a substance known as okara.
Okara: An Overlooked Ingredient
The processes for making soymilk and tofu results in 60 percent of the soybeans becoming a solid called okara, a largely throwaway product that spoils easily and is used only in a few ethnic recipes. Other than that, if it gets used at all, it’s as fertilizer or livestock feed. Yet okara is actually higher in nutrition than tofu or soymilk—largely because of its intense fiber content.
Schlemme and her cofounder, Caroline Cotto, decided to use okara to jump-start their crusade to help rescue the planet from waste. And so was born Renewal Mill. “Upcycling is such a dramatic improvement in efficiency. Suddenly, the resources like water, land, and energy that were used to grow the soybeans are now fully utilized to bring nutrition to peoples’ plates,” says Schlemme.
The company began with a line of premium, high-fiber, gluten-free, okara-based flours, which soon were followed by baking mixes for brownies and cookies. Through it all, the focus was on creating transparency and awareness. “Knowledge is power,” Schlemme says, “and the more a consumer knows about the origins of the things they buy and use, the more they can use their purchasing power to affect positive change.”
Future Motivation Fuels Renewal Mill’s Passion
Schlemme’s inspiration became even more personal when her son was born. “Having a baby provided tremendous perspective around the ‘why’ of what we’re doing,” she says. “As I think about my son’s future on this planet (and that of his generation), the urgency to move to a zero-waste world is intensified.”
But even though that global mission is always top of mind, Schlemme never forgets that Renewal Mill is—first and foremost—all about taste. “Of course, I’m motivated by the process behind the product and I hope that it inspires others,” she says, “but I’m also so excited when someone simply loves the product for itself. Because, truly, food needs to be delicious.”
Claire Schlemme (above left) and her partner Caroline Cotto founded Renewal Mill in part to tackle the issue of food waste, particularly in the case of a soy byproduct known as okara (right). “Upcycling is such a improvement in efficiency. Suddenly, the resources that were used to grow the soybeans are now fully utilized to bring nutrition to peoples’ plates,” she says.