By Whitney Pastorek
We've all done it: We come home from the grocery store with armfuls of fresh fruits and veggies, only to sadly throw out whatever's wilting in the crisper a week later. Or we excitedly collect our produce box from the local CSA, then suffer a massive anxiety attack while trying to eat everything before it goes bad. In countries where refrigeration is scarce, the problem of how to keep the available produce fresh from farm to fork is obviously much, much worse. All in all, spoilage contributes to about a third of the global food supply going to waste each year, stuffing landfills while leaving hungry mouths empty.
Kavita Shukla didn't set out to solve this problem. In fact, she was in middle school when she had the brainstorm that led to the invention of Fenugreen FreshPaper, small squares of spice-infused paper that can extend the shelf life of produce up to four times longer than usual. Like so many innovations, this one has a great origin story: Shukla, who immigrated to the U.S. with her parents as a toddler, had gone back to India to visit her grandmother, and accidentally drank some tap water while brushing her teeth. "I really started to freak out that I would get sick," she says. "My grandma went in the kitchen, and she mixed up this solution of different herbs and spices, and she said, `Just drink this and you'll be fine.' I was really skeptical, but I drank it. And I didn't get sick. And then I got really curious about how it worked." Shukla spent high school "meticulously" rotting fruits and vegetables ("which obviously made me really popular," she laughs), and eventually came up with the idea of fusing the preventative mixture into paper. She patented the concept of FreshPaper her senior year.
The exact blend of herbs and spices used in FreshPaper is proprietary, of course, and the only ingredient Shukla will reveal is fenugreek, a spice commonly used in Indian cooking. (It also provides the name of her company.) So how does it work? "It basically works by inhibiting bacterial and fungal growth, as well as the enzymes that cause fruit to over-ripen," Shukla explains. "The concept is that you can just drop a sheet into a drawer or carton. Sometimes people put it into a fruit bowl. Our customers call it a `dryer sheet for produce.'" Each certified organic and biodegradable sheet lasts about two to three weeks, until its distinctive maple-like scent begins to fade. "That's how you know it's no longer active," Shukla explains.
Initially, Shukla toyed with the idea of turning FreshPaper into a nonprofit focused on food spoilage in the developing world, but as a college student inexperienced in the complexities of philanthropic work, she had little success. "I started to doubt myself," she says. "Even people with the best intentions were saying, you know, `Maybe you should move beyond what you worked on in high school.'" After graduation, she got a job doing research, but she couldn't stop thinking about FreshPaper, and in 2010, she decided to launch Fenugreen as a social enterprise. "My co-founder and I set up a stall at a farmer's market," she says. "We handmade a batch of FreshPaper, and started handing out sheets. And although not a lot of people stopped by and listened to us that first time, we were amazed by the reaction of the few people who did. I think we realized that spoilage is a big problem even in our own backyard, which is something I never understood."
FreshPaper recently became available at Whole Foods, a significant jump in distribution that's allowed Shukla to start something she's dreamed of all along: A "get one, give one" program benefiting local food banks, starting with those affected by Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. Shukla says the brand has grown entirely by word of mouth, and credits much of this grassroots energy to increased environmental awareness in consumers. "As we start to learn more about what's going on with food waste, we realize that there's water involved, there's energy costs, land, resources, that go into creating the food that we eat," she says. "And with the economy, people are becoming much more conscious of being wasteful at home, because they know not only are they struggling, but there are people in the U.S. that have no access to fresh food at all. It seems that everyone is coming to understand the importance of buying less or conserving what we have, and how that fits into the larger food crisis."
Next, Shukla would like to expand into school lunch programs, and eventually start working with NGOs and small-scale farmers in developing nations. "We're starting to understand just how much a one- to two-day extension of shelf life could change the lives of people in those regions," she says. She especially relishes the notion of bringing FreshPaper "full-circle" to India, and although her grandmother passed away a few years after sharing her secret blend, Shukla says she's been amazed at the support she's gotten from her family in India, as well as other ethnic communities around the world. "It's really incredible how many people have come up to me and said, `Oh, my grandmother in China ...' or `My grandma in Africa would have these mixtures, and now I'm thinking I should have paid attention!'" she says. "My grandma didn't even have a high school education. She came from a pretty poor background. I just remember I thought it was remarkable that she had this knowledge that had been passed down through her family, and I was fascinated by the idea that something so simple could have actually kept me from getting really sick.
"Sometimes," she says, "simple can be so powerful."
This piece is part of Change Generation, our series on young, change-making entrepreneurs. Read the rest here.
Copyright 2012 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.