One business's trash is now another's very edible treasure. Portland-based ice cream laboratory Salt & Straw has long been the architect of many a strange dairy product—from smoked ham to fish sauce caramel and black olive brittle—but in 2017, lavender is as vanilla as, well, vanilla.
So, to stir the pot, Salt & Straw is adding something not so fresh to its menu: It's making ice cream out of food waste.
In order to source that waste, Salt & Straw has partnered with Urban Gleaners, a nonprofit that collects and redistributes edible, excess food from food producers, grocers, and restaurants. Salt & Straw's founder, Tyler Malek, is now on the board at Urban Gleaners. He claims the idea for the upcycled ice cream came from a conversation with the organization's founder and executive director, Tracy Oseran, who hopes to put a dent in child hunger through some of the proceeds from Salt & Straw's exclusive "trash" menu.
"When you walk into an elementary school, you can't ask whose parents aren't feeding you," says Malek, recalling a conversation from two years ago. "I was sitting down with the founder of Urban Gleaners, and they did this program where they gave kids paper plates and had kids draw what they had for dinner last night. A lot of these kids are hungry because they're not eating over the weekend like they are at school."
Bluntly put, the United States is lousy with food waste. According to a 2014 report from the USDA, nearly one-third of the 430 billion pounds of edible food produced in 2010 went uneaten, equivalent to more than $160 billion. Food waste is also the single largest component of US landfills, generating environmentally detrimental methane gas and benefitting no one.
With that in mind, Urban Gleaners and Salt & Straw decided to join forces. They reached out to bulk businesses, nonprofits, and farmers to collect as much wasted food as possible, from root vegetables to leftover grains from Breakside Brewery. After the food was examined and tested for potential food-borne pathogens, Salt & Straw incorporated it into ice cream recipes that debuted this month at its outposts in Portland, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The most delicious part: A sizable portion of the profits will be donated to Urban Gleaners to benefit its programs combating child hunger.
"We are so grateful that Salt & Straw is helping to bring awareness to our work of feeding thousands of local children through the power of food rescue," adds Oseran.
But the process itself was no walk in the park, especially when it came down to crafting the flavors at each of Salt & Straw's locations.
"It wasn't easy," explains Malek. "The flavors came down to what was available. We had to really evolve and get innovative with our purchasing and our food safety. We chose the flavors among 22 different people: our partners from all of our locations in Portland, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Each city brought different beneficiaries with different approaches."
Remarkably, the flavors' obscurity ended up speaking for the natural riches derived from each original landscape. In Portland, a local grocery chain called New Seasons contributed an excess of Vegenaise, which was then utilized in the vegan bourbon distilled cherries ambrosia flavor. Urban Gleaners itself provided a surprising amount of bread, which was then morphed into the PDX branch's toasted baguette PB&J.
One of the oddest ingredients is sunchokes, featuring prominently in a mock "apple pie" flavor. In California, an abundance of citrus trees fed yet additional recipes.
"When you read the flavors, they might not seem as innovative," says Malek. "But if you read into these pairings along with their stories, this was by far the most innovative thing we've ever done."
The most important takeaway from the food waste series is simple: Don't take your leftovers for granted.
"It was so funny to hear my cook having this conversation with his friend," says Malek. "His friend asked him if we're really making ice cream out of rotten food, and my cook asked his friend if he ever saves his leftovers. We're a business saving leftovers."