How does a zero waste junkie land on local food?

On Finding My Why

What is my why? This is a common question for all of us. After listening to my Kindling podcast with Peter, I enjoyed recalling how smooth and winding our conversation was. But I also couldn’t help but reflect on what I left out. This here lil’ post is an effort to fill those gaps, and also for me to keep answering the question, ‘So why pesto?’

For my second year of business school on the entrepreneurship track I decided I would launch a locally inspired and sourced, craft pesto business. Pesto is a green sauce that originated in Italy centuries ago and I’ve been working on my recipe for years, never knowing that I might try to sell it one day. With the help of instructors and classmates, I’ve built the bones for a local food business called PestoGrino. My aspirations for the business go beyond pesto; the broader mission is to work with local farmers to create gourmet specialty foods from rescued fruits and vegetables.

Maybe I was worried about getting too personal on the podcast, but there’s a lot of heavy, deep stuff I connect with in waste that I haven’t entirely sorted through yet. I think deep down, I identify with the “unwanted” and the “forgotten”. Maybe it can all be chalked up to being a latchkey kid, but there is something in me that propels me to dig through garbage cans picking out the recycling, and finding uses and homes for things.



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I’m now selling my pesto at 2 different farmer’s markets, and recently attended a workshop here in Atlanta to help vendors better sell their products. For introductions, we had to explain our why. Even after doing a six minute presentation on this very exact story, the short version still evades me. I went into hyper-brevity mode, thinking how can I distill my path into just a few words? I then wrote down this string of words:

trash->economics->MBA->local food systems->pesto

Making the business case for waste elimination led me to get an MBA in Sustainable Systems, and I’ve tumbled out in quite a different spot than where I came in. We studied how our economic system not only incentivizes the rapid consumption of resources thus producing tons of trash, but how private corporations rule over our government. This infuriates me. We have a racist war on drugs while white collar crime goes unnoticed except for when the bankers crash the economy, but even then no one goes to jail.

What can we do to overturn this trend of privatized profits and socialized losses? How can we build a better system that makes the old one obsolete? Our professor, the Great Marsha Willard, urged us budding systems-thinkers to think of solutions beyond education or policy reforms. This was a business school after all.

This fantastic graphic discovered at Seizure By The Elites

This fantastic graphic discovered at Seizure By The Elites
This fantastic graphic discovered at Seizure By The Elites

These systems don’t just run themselves, there’s a hell of a lot of social conditioning that goes on to keep them in place. Take for instance the 20%-40% of produce that never makes it to market because of our cosmetic expectations for fruits and vegetables. PhD student at Stanford, Anna Lee wrote in a Washington Post article last year that:

Some criteria are rightly based on food-safety and shelf-life considerations, but many are manifestations of misguided normative ideas about what produce should look like. Cucumbers should be straight, cauliflower florets should be tightly held, and rhubarb stalks should be ruby red. If not, retailers tell farmers, consumers won’t buy them.

It was striking to read this article right after listening to the Kindling podcast with Emily Affolter on “Being an Ally and the White Liberal Chamber”. I thought, ‘Holy shit, are we just constantly projecting expectations and stereotypes onto everyone and every thing?!’ Also how are we to create a “market-based solution” when it is the market causing and perpetuating the problem? Waste can be seen as a sign of abundance for certain, but also excess. And in a world where so many go without, so many food insecure or hungry, I see food waste as a social justice issue. It is one of the many smoking guns of inequality.

Whenever I get lost in the sea of wicked problems, I swim up for air and find a buoy in “root solutions”. These are strategies that look beyond symptoms, and actually address root causes.

I’ve been following this spiraling inquiry for years. I have found that bolstering local economies is a root solution for our current corporatocracy. The multinational corporation model is designed in a way that naturally extracts resources from communities for the benefit of a few at the top. However when attention and purchase decisions favor local businesses and organizations, wealth stays and circulates in the community longer. Simply put, dollars (and votes!) go farther.

Graphic taken from http://blog.midmopeaceworks.org/2013/11/we-need-you-to-keep-it-localsupport.html
Graphic taken from Mid-Missouri Peaceworks

Wildly Nourishing Resilience

I believe that we as humans can actually do a lot better than the modest goal of trying to live more sustainably. I believe we have an imperative as cohabitants on this Earth to create regenerative ways of producing and consuming.

How can we leave this place better than we found it? We’re surrounded by examples in the natural world where every organism’s waste is another organism’s food. We have much to learn from plants’ and animals’ ancient intelligence; they’ve got a 3.2 billion year head start on R&D for some of the most pressing challenges we face as a species.

Yeah yeah, but where does the green sauce play into all of this?

Once my attention got placed on my local community here in Georgia, I wondered in what way could I uniquely contribute to Atlanta’s local economy? The more I thought about essential industries, the more I wondered ‘How can we sustainably, and ideally regeneratively feed ourselves?” I mean, if we can’t get that right then we’re in biiiiig trouble.

The food system to me is like ground zero for a sustainable society, it’s “Resiliency 101” as I like to call it. Looking at not just the how, but the what of the food system I grew more aware of how detached we’ve become from our food sources. It was right around the new year when I thought, well…I do have a pretty rockin’ pesto recipe.

Making pesto has always been a fun, intuitive process for me, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m Italian. I delight in creating something so tasty that requires no cooking. “Pure. Raw. Goodness.” as my tagline goes.

Food has the power to be a source of disease or a source of medicine. I stand by my theory that the world would be a much better place if we all got a little more curious about where our food is coming from. A question most worthy of our attention is ‘what are we feeding ourselves?’

I have a couple dreams for scaling; one involves a Willy Wonka-style pesto factory, another an integrated farm with a concert kitchen. I also hope to build a “wildly nourishing culture”, one where individuals know they can bring their whole selves to work, and we genuinely have a good time. I’m trying to stay open to the pesto-bilities, I’m just getting started, and the road to alignment with my soul purpose is an ever-winding one.

It’s too early to tell if I’ll be able to make a living off of transforming rescued fruits and vegetables into gourmet specialty foods. But I’m starting with “waste greens” and pesto sauces, and am open to the twists and turns where this venture will undoubtedly take me.

My first 2 markets were by many measures, successful. I sold out of Classic Basil and Parsley Lemon Balm, but the very variety I’m trying to build a brand/business/movement around, the Carrot Top pesto, I had sold only a handful of.

This inevitably dove me into the classic entrepreneurial cycle of doubt. Is the world ready for what I have to offer? Is what I’m doing powerful enough to go against the deeply entrenched linear economy that incentivizes trash production? Am I out of my mind? Unfortunately, no. I’m not, but I need to be.

I went to yoga this morning to do precisely that, get out of my head. In a most ironic moment, it occurred to me that I cannot think my way through everything. How fascinating! There are some things that we must feel our way through, and in this particular scenario I’m almost certain I’m going to have to experience my way through.

What are your hopes and dreams for a more just and regenerative food system? How does our food system most impact you? Uplift you? Leave us a comment in the chat box, we’d love to hear your thoughts or ruminations on anything that resonates (or dissonates) with you.

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