Colorado Startups Are Fighting Climate Change with Upcycled Foods

By Keller Northcutt

As we add over 80 million people to the planet each year, it is easy to wonder if our food supply can keep up with demand. The agriculture industry is scrambling to produce enough food, and in doing so, it is contributing over 30% of total global carbon emissions through deforestation, soil degradation, livestock production, and more. Luckily, Colorado startups are stepping up to tackle this overwhelming battle. 

It seems obvious that farmers would want to sell every bit of food grown. Yet nearly one-third of produce goes to waste before it even leaves the farms, and 40 percent of all food produced annually in the U.S. is never eaten. This is primarily due to “ugly” produce being unsellable, as well as supply chain inefficiencies and climatic factors degrading crops (cue the 2017 Front Range hailstorm). Not only is this a waste of food, but it also equates to nearly 1 trillion dollars lost each year for farmers. 

Durango-based entrepreneur Turner Wyatt, CEO of Upcycled Food Association (UFA), is spearheading the revolution to save both the food and the farmers. Wyatt started the organization in 2019 as a response to seeing good food go to waste in the food rescue realm. 

“I worked for Boulder Food Rescue, and I watched loaves of bread going bad. I thought, how could we use this bread instead of throwing it away if no one takes it? So we sent it to Denver breweries to be used for brewing beer,” Wyatt said. 

Soon bagels were toasted into bagel chips and ugly apples were dried into tasty apple rings. The products were sold at local farmers markets, and the Food Rescue was earning income from products that otherwise would have been tossed.

Turner Wyatt
Turner Wyatt founded the Upcycled Food Association as a means to combat food waste, a major contributor to climate change.

“It wasn’t solely about reducing food waste, it was also a way to help the organization become more self-sufficient and increase their profits,” said Wyatt. 

So what is “upcycled” food exactly? Through a collaborative workshop between UFA, Harvard Law, Natural Resources Defense Council, and others, upcycled foods were defined as those that “use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment.” Basically, they are foods that can and should be eaten rather than thrown away. 

In just three years, Upcycled Food Association has spread throughout 20 countries and saved over 1 billion pounds of food from going to waste (a weight equivalent to 40,000 school buses.) UFA currently has 250 members in their Upcycled Certification Program, with another 500 businesses on deck to get certified. 

The number of businesses utilizing upcycled food and other products is growing. Sales of UFA-certified products grew by 1,000% in the past years. There are foods, personal care products, household products, and pet food that all use upcycled ingredients. As the UFA certification continues, consumers will be able to easily identify products with an Upcycle Certified Trademark logo on the packaging. 

Farm to Summit, a Durango-based backcountry food business, relies on upcycled produce to create their dehydrated backpacking meals. They work with over 10 small-scale farms in Southern Colorado to collect the vegetables for their meals, including carrots, squash, tomatoes, beans, cabbage, peppers, and more. 

“Because we source our produce straight from the farmers, we are creating a second’s market for farmers within our region. This means a farmer can contact us when a crop is damaged or if they just have too much, and we will go pick it up, which also cuts out the additional resources wasted in packaging and shipping,” said Jane Barden, co-owner of Farm to Summit.  

Another benefit to upcycling food in this way is that it reconnects business owners to the sources of their products.

“Our industrialized food system has obscured the relationship between rural and urban. Where there used to be clear connections and dependency, people are now completely removed from the farmers and production,” said Wyatt. Upcycling reestablishes these relationships and increases the farmers’ profits.

Western Slope startup UpRoot is increasing nutrition security and supporting local farmers by harvesting and redistributing surplus, nutrient-dense foods in rural Colorado, including Silt and Paonia. They are creating a food system “where farmers are valued for who they are: a cornerstone of our society,” their vision states. Although these foods are not necessarily being made into new products, this “gleaning” upcycles produce by bringing them to local foods banks and those in need. They are also providing hands-on education for their community regarding food waste.

Eagle Springs
UpRoot is increasing nutrition security and supporting local farmers by harvesting and redistributing surplus foods in rural Colorado.

“One of our main goals at UpRoot is to create opportunities for community members to step foot onto a farm, where they’ll learn more about the challenges that farmers face and witness firsthand all that goes into the production of our food. Our theory and hope is that reconnecting individuals to the sources of our food will inspire them to appreciate their food more and waste less of it at home,” said UpRoot Co-Director Rita Mary Hennigan.

There is a growing list of other Colorado-based upcyclers, including Open Farm Pet, making ethical and sustainable dog and cat food, and reHarvest Provisions, with superfood smoothie pops made from “rePurposed” fruits and veggies. Kathryn Bernell, founder of reHarvest, said she chose to use upcycled foods “in order to fix the broken supply chain plaguing the food system.” 

“Upcycled ingredients offer companies and consumers an opportunity to reverse the waste and damage built into our existing consumption patterns without sacrificing the quality we all expect and want to deliver,” said Bernell. 

As individuals, there are numerous ways to support upcycling. Other than buying products that use upcycled ingredients, the easiest step is to reduce food waste in our own homes. The average household wastes $1,500 per year by throwing away unused food. One solution is to go to the store more frequently and buy smaller quantities of items. Keep a list on your fridge of its current contents and menu ideas. And when the lettuce turns slimy, compost it or feed it to chickens. For many products, you can upcycle it yourself by dehydrating fruits and veggies to make dried snacks, or store veggie scraps, like tops and stems, to make stock out of them. 

For business owners and entrepreneurs, Wyatt believes now is the time to jump into sourcing upcycled products. According to UFA’s consumer data, the upcycled food industry is projected to double in the next 10 years. 

“If you are interested in food, business, environment, or health, upcycled food is one of the most intersectional industries. You will see greater profit if using upcycled ingredients, as consumers are becoming more drawn to upcycled products,” Wyatt said. 

At a time where the demand and cost of food is increasing, wasting less food, purchasing upcycled foods, and supporting local farmers makes a lasting impact on our food system and the health of the environment. For growing businesses, sourcing upcycled ingredients and considering a Upcycled Foods Certification could lead to a greater ROI and stronger customer base. 

“There is a huge network of folks out there experimenting with a ton of different products in upcycling. Where there is a waste, there can be a byproduct. Get creative!” encouraged Barden.