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3-course interview: Shani Christopher, RePurpose Food Co. founder

A startup finds a use for wasted food

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Shani Christopher recently launched RePurpose Food Co., a startup that aims to collect unused food and turn it into healthy baby food for low-income communities. Last month, Christopher was one of four finalists to split a $20,000 prize at local incubator Propeller's PitchNOLA: Living Well competition. Christopher is working to launch a pilot program in fall. She spoke to Gambit about food waste and early childhood nutrition.

What is meant by "food waste"?

Christopher: I think people think of food waste as what's left on your plate, or ... what's in the trash. They don't realize that half of the food that's grown is wasted. This isn't just half of the things that you didn't eat; it's half of the food that's produced in this country.

What gave you the idea to repurpose wasted food for baby food?

C: I've worked in the [eco industry] for a long time and gone to a lot of conferences. In all of those [venues] there's a lot of cool, innovative and exciting announcements, but often it's about what's cool and flashy, not about what actually will help people. You can go to justice summits and you can go to equity summits, but there isn't that focus on justice or equity within the green spaces. I've always been bothered by that but not sure how to apply it. That's how I got to the idea for RePurpose — by making something available to low-income communities and people who need it the most. The goal of RePurpose is to take wasted food and manufacture baby food while also creating jobs within the community and (providing) educational training.

  One part is partnering with farmers, primarily at farmers markets. The goal is to source from farmers markets and what farmers (don't sell) — finding a way to purchase that so it makes sense for the farmers and the business, as well as direct buying from farmers for whatever (food) they might (discard). Also, I would like to (purchase) byproducts from food processing (operations). If you're buying prepared vegetables — maybe baby carrots — there are always byproducts that are thrown away but are still perfectly good food.

  (For manufacturing) I'm working on an agreement with Liberty's Kitchen to get their students some training. My goal is to create jobs not only as an employment opportunity but as a pathway to ownership. I'm hoping that Liberty's will be the main source (for manufacturing), but there are a few commissary kitchens that I've contracted with as well.

  Ideally it will be distributed through community groups, through drop boxes and in areas that need it the most. The cool thing about farmers markets is [consumers] can pay with [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps]. I'm also talking to mothers' groups, local doulas and breastfeeding groups, so as they transition from breastfeeding to infant food, they're already navigating that community.

  Throughout the summer I'm doing little pop-ups at farmers markets testing the product and testing the name. The company's name is RePurpose, but the brand name will be local.

How will RePurpose benefit low-income communities from a health standpoint?

C: The food is steamed and pureed. It's an all-natural product with no preservatives or additives. I think there are many factors that (affect) a child in the first 1,000 days, from pregnancy to age 2. When there is malnutrition at that stage, there are long-term cognitive developmental delays and you can see the effect in educational outcomes, health outcomes and life expectancy. A lot of people in lower-income communities are living a shorter amount of time, and that really does start at that critical time period. Introducing healthy nutrition at that point is really important. I think that will have lifelong impacts.

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