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Turning brown bananas into ice cream: Repurposing surplus food reduces hunger, creates jobs

8421632884_224d355c21_zAccording to a recent report, the United States is one of the most wasteful countries in the world. Up to 40 percent of American food is thrown in the trash, which seems absurd given that food insecurity and hunger are still such problems in this country. Adequate nutrition is a basic for preventing disease and promoting health.

But students at Drexel University are working on improving the situation. They developed a program to use would-be supermarket waste in producing value-added food products. Not only can these products be provided to hungry people, they can be sold back to the supermarket in a mutually-beneficial relationship that could also support new jobs.

The strategy - called a "Food System-Sensitive Methodology", or FSSM - was developed as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Challenge, and is described in a recent Food and Nutrition Sciences article. Drexel culinary arts and food science students decided to reach out to supermarkets because these stores are some of the biggest producers of waste: They throw out produce that is bruised, marked, or misshapen, or remove food simply to make room for fresher shipments. For their pilot project in West Philadelphia, students collected thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables from local supermarkets and improved their value and palatability by developing recipes in the student-run Drexel Food Lab, a research group that aims to address real-world food issues.

Americans are used to cosmetically pristine produce, and many won't eat a brown banana even when they're hungry. Jonathan Deutsch, PhD, director of Drexel University’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, explains in a press release how FSSM addresses this: “For example, we took those brown bananas, peeled them, froze them and food processed them to create banana ice cream, which is much more appealing.” Drexel has given facelifts to similarly lackluster items, like canned peas. This requires chefs to think in a new, more sustainable way: Instead of concocting a recipe and then buying ingredients, they must be creative with what's given to them.

The release describes the program's economics:

In an evaluation of just one month of the program, the researchers found that 35,000 pounds of surplus produce were gathered from 11 area supermarkets. If the surplus produce was purchased for a reduced price of $0.25 per pound and was processed into value-added food products such as veggie chips, jams and smoothie bases, it could then be wholesaled back to the same supermarket or other community-based retailers for $2.00 per pound.

These products could then be retailed at double the price, the researchers estimate, generating more than $90,000 in monthly gross revenue, enough to support several employees at a family wage.

Applying FSSM, the preliminary results suggest that the potential production inputs nationally would be about 1.1 billion pounds annually. According to the researchers, the scalable economic, social and environmental opportunities are substantial.

“An important way to address global food security is to make better use of the food already produced,” the researchers wrote. “[The FSSM model] could help relieve chronic hunger and address the cost barriers that prevent these important sources of healthy dietary nutrients from reaching lower income people in the U.S… The possibility for other foods, such as meats, grains and dairy, to increase diversion of food waste to hunger relief only brightens this outlook.”

Previously: Stanford researchers address hunger in new book on food security, Hoping to end hidden hunger through food fortification and Doctors tackling child hunger during the summer
Photo by Joy

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