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The Upcycled Food Economy

A food system in which all food goes to its highest and best use

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Upcycled Food Association

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Agricycle, Matriark Foods, reBLEND, 412 Food Rescue, Planetarians , RISE Products , The Ugly Company, Misfits Market Inc , Coffee Cherry Co , Repurposed Pod, Hidden Gem Beverage Co , NETZRO , Philabundance, Treasure8, TBJ Gourmet, Imperfect Foods, FoodMaven , Spare Food Co, Bad Apple Produce , Ugly Pickle, coRISE, Fancypants Baking Co, ReGrained, Renewal Mill, Goodr, Barnana, Wize Monkey, Misadventure Vodka, PurePlus, NutraBerry, Caskai, Seconds, Comet Bio, Superfrau, Full Harvest, Pulp Pantry, Good Use, Toast Ale, MATTSON, SunOpta, Griffith Foods, Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, International Flavors and Fragrances

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Greenwood Village, Colorado

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Where food waste happens

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

We know we’re taking a chance by picking a Place that’s bigger than the strongly* recommended 100,000 sq. km. We’re taking that chance NOT because we don’t understand the rules, or because our Vision does not apply in smaller systems. We’re taking the chance because of who our People are: businesses who operate in dozens of countries around the world.

When we first heard of the Food Systems Vision Challenge in October, we had not yet even formed an organization yet. In the months since, we’ve built a global network of 40+ businesses, who have all contributed to this vision of a food system where all food goes to its highest and best use. Our network is so global and interconnected, it makes more sense for us to take a chance and have too big of a vision than to leave anyone out. That’s our disclaimer. 

Our People are a diverse set of Food Value Chain Actors, and Food System Influencers. Our Place is where our People waste food. They are represented within the Upcycled Food Association Membership (we didn’t have the capacity to get all of them to join our “Team” on the platform yet). Below is a list of our network, and the part of the system with which they have the most intimate relationship.

Producers: The Ugly Company

Food Workers: Agricycle

Distributors: FoodMaven, Goodr, Full Harvest

Processors: Matriark Foods, reBLEND, Planetarians, RISE Products, Coffee Cherry Co, Repurposed Pod, Hidden Gem Beverage Co, NETZRO, TBJ Gourmet, ReGrained, Renewal Mill, Barnana, Wize Monkey, Misadventure Vodka, PurePlus, NutraBerry, Caskai, Seconds, Comet Bio, Superfrau, Treasure8, Pulp Pantry, Ugly Pickle, coRISE, Fancypants Baking Co, Toast Ale, Good Use

Retailers:Imperfect Foods, Misfits Market Inc, Bad Apple Produce

Preparers: Spare Food Co

Consumers: All of us

Waste recoverers: 412 Food Rescue, Philabundance, 

Food Innovators: MATTSON

Large Food Corporates: Griffith Foods, SunOpta, IFF


Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

When surveyed, our People described our “Place” simply: it's where people eat. But it’s also where food travels on its journey to the table. Our Place is the farm, where dirt is often found under fingernails, and food is left unharvested due to lack of resources and low prices. Our Place is the distribution truck, where pallets of food roar across the continents, and only the prettiest of food makes it to a retailer. Our Place the industrial kitchen, where food is processed and manufactured, turning creativity into delicious smells, and ingredients into nutrient dense byproducts that are often thrown out. Our Place is the retailer, where tastes are a feast for the eyes, and food beauty standards lead to good food being culled from the shelf. Our Place is the dinner table, the restaurant, cafe, wrapped in foil in the car on the way to work, and the other places people eat, taking part in sacred connection to people and planet, and unknowingly neglecting this connection when leftovers are forgotten in the depths of the refrigerator. Our Place is where food happens, and where food goes to waste. 

Culturally, our Place represents great diversity, yet there are common threads that tie our People together. As the people who dedicate their lives to food, who obsess over it and toil over getting it just right, we hate to see food go to waste. There seems to be a natural human instinct, which crosses borders and languages, which urges people of all backgrounds to not waste food. Our People are among the 400,000,000 individuals who work in the global food industry to produce, distribute, and sell food that is never eaten. 

Our People don’t want to see food go to waste, but food businesses are, at the end of the day, beholden to food consumers. If there’s reason to believe that a bruised apple will harm the seller’s brand, that’s reason enough to throw it before it reaches the shelf. Until recently, we didn’t know that consumers cared so much about reducing food waste. We didn’t realize that wasting food was built upon a myth that only the prettiest foods were desired by consumers. The upcycled food movement is a partnership between food companies and consumers, confronting the myths that made our food system wasteful, and creating a new one where all food goes to its highest and best use.

Our Place is where food waste happens. Our place is where there is an opportunity to implement new policies and technologies that allow the normal rules of economics to create food which is better aligned with the values of real people, and the population of 2050.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

If you believe the most pressing challenge of our time is avoiding the worst effects of climate change, then the most important aspect of a vision for our food system in 2050 should be that it prevents food waste. According to Project Drawdown - a quantitative ranking of the top 100 strategies to address climate change - the most important thing we can do related to food is to reduce food waste. Food waste reduction is the third most impactful strategy because up to 40% of food produced goes to waste worldwide. You may have heard “if food waste were a country, it would be the third worst emitter of greenhouse gasses after China and the USA.” That statistic is true because of all the energy that was wasted in growing, transporting, and selling that food, not merely because of the emissions from food in landfills. Our vision cannot simply focus on diverting food waste. The challenge is to nudge the conversation towards preventing food waste in the first place. This is why source reduction is at the top of the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy, and why the food system of the future must ensure that all food goes to its highest and best use. 

Efforts to make our food system more sustainable have often been marred with half truths tarnishing the initial spirit. Greenwashing is rampant in 2020 and we must be vigilant if we are not to miss this opportunity for meaningful food waste reduction. For context, baby carrots for instance were once a response to misshapen produce but their demand has now likely outgrown the misshapen carrot supply. We must ensure solutions that start as a way to prevent surplus production don’t give rise to a demand that ultimately leads to more production.

It‘s possible the most important difference between the years 2020 and 2050 is that the human population in 2050 will be much larger. 80% of deforestation is caused by agriculture, and deforestation is a contributor to climate change itself. In 2050, how will our People provide healthy diets for more than 10 billion without destroying the world’s forests? 

And how will we afford so much food? With more than 10% of the world population lacking sufficient nutrition, how do we feed a world with more people; especially when considering nutrient dense fruits and vegetables are often relatively more perishable? Food waste already presents a $1 trillion economic loss to our People. As production scales, so will this loss. Food companies will continue to be stretched as our world’s cultures increasingly align their food choices with environmental values. These new demands tend to be at odds with the bottom line of food businesses, compounded by new policies passed and the costs of research into new technologies. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

In light of the fact that most consumers care about reducing food waste, it is a rare place in our market-driven food system where the values of consumers and food businesses overlap. That means within this concept of reducing food waste lies a powerful alliance between the people who sell food, and the people who buy it. The stage is set for our vision of a food system in which all food goes to its highest and best use. 

Upcycling is a time-honored tradition, which has new relevance in the face of climate change. Long ago, humans were flavoring soups with bones, drying meat so it could be eaten tomorrow,and using the whole of a hunted animal. Currently there’s no official definition of “upcycled food,” but our team is already working with experts in academia, government, nonprofits, and industry to come up with a definition that meets everyone’s needs (for use in policy, regulation, consumer messaging, etc...). Despite the lack of official definition, upcycled food is simple: it’s making a new food product from food that was otherwise going to waste. Our team is creating a definition of upcycled food that ensures a net benefit, meaning a purchase of upcycled food is a net reduction of food waste. This standard ensures meaningful impact instead of merely good intentions. In this vision, we’re not just diverting food that is destined to go to waste, we’re preventing food waste by altering the food value chain to incentivize best and highest use.

A food system that integrates upcycling by investing in technology and implementing favorable policies potentially yields an increase in food production equal to the 40% currently going to waste. This not only solves the environmental problems associated with food waste, but answers the question of how we will sustainably provide enough food for a growing population’s needs.

The vision also gives food companies a way to turn their losses into profits. Often when we think of corporations increasing their profits we think of cutting corners and implementing practices that harm either workers or the environment. A food system that includes a robust upcycled food sector gives those who grow, process, transport, and sell food, including small business such as family farm, an economic incentive to align actions with consumers’ environmental values; the third most impactful action to fight climate change. In a food system with more upcycled food, our People are rewarded for contributing to the global community’s environmental goals. 

But that’s only half of the food-consumer-food-business nexus making this vision so exciting. If consumers really want to buy upcycled food, we are set up for success in creating our vision. Luckily, new research from Mattson suggests that indeed, 60% of consumers want more upcycled food.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

There will be less carbon emitted warming the planet and better conditions for the overall health of our communities. There will be more food to go around, as if we’ve miraculously found a new island where 40% of the world's food grows. This gives people who were previously excluded from the food economy a chance to earn a living. Not only will more food be available for humans to eat, there is more economic opportunity for people to support themselves. Hunger is not a food problem, it’s a poverty problem, and the upcycled food system gives more people the chance to earn money in the food industry without degrading the environment.

For our People:

Producers: will be able to afford to harvest whole crops because there is demand for the ugly or misshapen product

Food Workers: Will have more consistent and better paying work, as more crops are harvested at a higher value

Distributors: Will be busy shipping up to 40% more food around the world

Processors: Will create more new sustainable products, which improve their brand reputation and the environment.

Retailers: Will be incentivized to carry more upcycled products, their aisles will be spotted with Certified Upcycled logos.

Preparers: Will be able to celebrate the dishes they have been making all along from yesterday’s surplus.

Consumers: Will have better access to more affordable, sustainable products.

Waste recoverers: Will be incentivized to create sustainable, revenue generating programs through upcycling parts of their food supply.

Food Innovators: Will lead the charge in researching and developing the slew of new products and ingredients.

Large Food Corporates: Will integrate upcycled ingredients into their current products, helping their bottom line and improving their image.

NGOs: Will pivot from curbing pre-consumer negligence to reducing post-consumer waste. 

Scientists Researchers, and Students: Will research the upcycled food industry, poke holes in the logic, and continuously improve the systems.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

I come from the nonprofit food recovery space. I co-founded and served as the Executive Director of Denver Food Rescue for seven years. During that time, we kept millions of pounds of food from the landfill, picking up otherwise wasted food from grocery stores, and delivering it to low-income families. This work left a permanent mark on my heart, and anyone who has worked in hunger relief knows the satisfaction, the community, and the utter hopelessness you feel year after year. Those of us on the front lines of hunger and waste have heard from philanthropists many times, “we aren’t funding food recovery work anymore. We want to fund something innovative.” “How can we leave the decision to solve the massive global problem of food waste in the hands of fickle philanthropists? I thought. Fed up with the system, I decided I wanted to find something new. There had to be a more economically sustainable, and scalable, solution to 40% of our food going to waste. There already was.

I learned about the concept of ‘upcycled food’ and started to reach out to entrepreneurs on linkedin to ask them about their work. Most obliged and gave me their insight during long phone calls. After a number of these calls, I started to notice a pattern: despite being in different countries, selling different products, and being at distinct stages of business development, all upcycled food companies were facing basically the same issues. “Customers love that our product reduces food waste, but we often get questions about if upcycled food came out of the trash,” I would hear. “The government has no idea how to categorize our regulate our ingredient,” was a common complaint, and so was “we have this great, nutritious ingredient, but we don’t have the technology to produce it scale.” I also noticed that each business saw themselves as a part of a fledgling upcycled food industry, rather than an individual business. They weren’t just building a brand, they were contributing to the food system of the future, one with much, much more upcycled food, and virtually no waste. If one food business can upcycle a small amount of food, then a whole food industry can systematically upcycle a great deal of food. “A rising tide raises all ships,” I kept hearing, but everyone’s focus was, out of necessity, on their own ship. Someone needs to focus on the tide, I heard.

If each business is a skyscraper, we needed someone to focus on the municipal plumbing. The un-sexy, behind the scenes work that makes the skyline a livable place. These entrepreneurs decided to form an organization that would focus on building the upcycled food industry by strengthening the fabric between each individual company, and improve their collective ability to have a positive impact. In October 2019, these companies formed the Upcycled Food Association, a nonprofit whose mission is to reduce food waste by growing the upcycled food economy. In the few months that have passed since, we have grown to a community of more than 40 businesses, all dedicated to building a food system where all food goes to its highest and best use. Why? Because it’s what consumers want to eat.

In 2017, a study out of Drexel University showed that consumers understand ‘upcycled food’ as a stand alone food category, analogous to ‘organic’ or ‘conventional.’ The study also concluded that consumers found the perceived benefits to other people and the planet to be greater than that for organic food. Suddenly, it was apparent that the word ‘upcycled,’ undefined and underfunded, was testing better with conscious consumers than ‘organic,’ a word that had received billions in investment over decades. How did the organic movement become so successful, and could its success be replicated to meet the new century’s needs?

In 1980 the United States Department of Agriculture released a document called “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming.” In it, the USDA outlined the growing global consumer interest in organic agriculture. “[Consumer] interest in the quality of food as well as various environmental issues is increasing,” the report says, adding that in other countries around the world, organic agriculture is being used “to achieve a mutually beneficial relationship between the farmer, the consumer, and the environment.”

In order for organic agriculture to gain success, “marketing systems and certification programs should be established to assure that organically produced foods are properly labeled and can be efficiently distributed and made available to consumers who desire them.” The USDA knew that greenwashing was not an option, and that ‘organic’ needed to meet a rigorous threshold of impact if it was to be widely adopted: “...consumer confidence in organic foods depends upon the enforcement of strict certification requirements.” 12 years later, the USDA made good on these predictions with the first meeting of the National Organic Standards Board a USDA-nominated board of expert citizens that “makes recommendations on a wide range of issues involving the production, handling, and processing of organic products.” 

As a result of this organized effort to mainstream organic food in the United States, at least 5 million acres of organic agriculture were under till in 2016, and this number increases every year. This led to $28 billion in organic food retail sales in 2012, 4% of total food sales. These figures are also on the rise annually. As a result of this growth, farmers have changed their behavior, fewer chemicals were sprayed onto crops, and our soil’s chemistry is different. The word ‘organic’ has indeed changed our food system, and our world. All because people wanted to buy ‘organic’ food.

Just as thirty years ago, food businesses and consumers took the first steps towards a food system with much more organic food, thirty years from now we envision a food system with much more upcycled food. We are the next generation of sustainable food visionaries. We envision the same “mutually beneficial relationship between the farmer, the consumer, and the environment.”

According to leading product developer MATTSON, 60% of consumers want to buy more upcycled food. That’s because 95% of consumers want to do their part to reduce food waste. It seems that as the topic of food waste has grown more familiar, and upcycled food brands gain popularity, consumers are connecting the dots. Just as the 2017 Drexel study concluded: people understand what ‘upcycled’ food is, and they understand the benefit it has on the environment. Consumer demand will incentivize new technology and policy that will allow the normal rules of economics to create new food products that better align with cultural values and the population of 2050. In 2050, consumers will demand sustainable food much more than they do today.

A system for regulation, definition, and accreditation is the foundation of an upcycled food economy. Since October, we’ve put together an impressive list of academics, government agencies, industry professionals and our members and asked them to define “upcycled food” in a way that will advance technologies and policies. This definition will serve as the foundation for a product certification program, which we’re launching October 2020, along with the beginning stages of a consumer education campaign. Together, these programs are intended to help consumers understand how important it is for us to use our food system to create a more abundant, regenerative future.

When consumers want to buy something, businesses provide it. Soon after consumers start to expect to see upcycled foods in their local grocery store, larger food brands will pony up and get a piece of the action. Why wouldn’t they? Turning what was being wasted (or in financial terms a “loss”) into a profit is a great deal for food companies. We know this is how big food companies are thinking because there are already several within our Membership. Big food companies are bracing for the wave of upcycled food, trying to get ahead of the trend. Specialty Food Association, Whipstitch Capital, Griffith Foods, MATTSON, New Hope Network, many companies who publish food trends reports are listing upcycled foods. 

As more companies start to see value in every fraction of their process, as more upcycled food brands take up more and more room in a grocery store, as the ‘Certified Upcycled’ logo becomes more visible, impossible avoid in any given section of the grocery store, our Place will begin to adapt to less waste. Policy makers will be forced to streamline the process of upcycled food regulation. Farms will have less fruit rotting on the ground as ‘ugly’ produce is upcycled into healthy beverages, and farm workers will have more consistent and higher paying work. People all over the world will have better access to food that aligns with their sustainability values, and that doesn’t harm the environment. Food manufacturing plants will install new technology to collect the valuable byproducts from the manufacturing line. One byproduct will make its way into another manufacturing facility, where perhaps another byproduct is created, captured, and turned into yet another product. 

Future Market Insights released a report in 2019 that showed that the upcycled food economy had a market value of $46.7 billion, and that this economy will experience a 5% compound annual growth rate between 2019 and 2029. In a food system where all food goes to its highest and best use, there is no “food waste” as we have come to understand it in 2020. If $1 trillion in food is wasted annually, then that’s the annual size of the upcycled food economy. If 40% of food goes to waste, then the value of 40% of our food system is the value of the upcycled food economy. But we’re not building two food systems; it’s not 60% of our food is the normal food system, and 40% is the upcycled food system. It’s one system. 100% of the food in the system is going to its highest and best use.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Conference/event


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