Square Roots program turns food scraps into sellable meals

The most extraordinary aspect of the cost-reduction program now in place at 11 foodservice sites in Canada is tough to pinpoint. It’s almost as daunting as identifying a downside. The participating establishments save on food and hauling fees while fostering goodwill within their communities. Residents of their province—Nova Scotia, the neediest in Canada—can get a complete restaurant meal for $5. And a local college can brag that its students hatched the initiative, complete with a revenue-generating component that makes the plan sustainable.

But that’s just the start. Square Roots, as the program is known, was conceived by students at St. Mary’s University in Halifax as their entry in a global competition for young brains to find solutions to social problems that have long vexed their elders. Each of the 3,000 college teams identified an issue afflicting their communities, then brainstormed a remedy.

The St. Mary’s squad tackled a number of problems: food insecurity in Canada, where one in eight people isn’t guaranteed a next meal, along with a need to cut food waste, currently raging at 40% on a worldwide basis. How could those two problems be approached in a way that cancels out the other? 

The team hit on a two-pronged approach. Restaurants were solicited to turn less-than-beautiful food scraps into meals that packed the same taste and nourishment as more Instagrammable preparations. Square Roots would sell $5 tokens that individuals or charities could buy and exchange for a meal worth more than the bargain price. The restaurants would keep $2.50, the gravy on top of what they saved in trash-hauling charges, and pass along the other $2.50 to Square Roots to cover administrative costs.

The tokens are sold by the restaurants and other local businesses, and are redeemable only within certain hours. The cashless approach prevents dollars from being used by a meal buyer for another purpose. The setup also permits third parties to buy and distribute the coins to persons in need. 

In addition to turning kitchen scraps into sellable meals, the St. Mary’s team looked at ways of cutting food waste at the producer level. Growers were solicited to provide fruits and vegetables that are usually thrown away because of their appearance. As much as 30% of a crop may be discarded because grocery stores won’t buy the unsightly items. 

Under the second component of Square Roots, the so-called ugly produce is packed into 10-pound bundles and sold in raw form at a deep discount. Persons who identify themselves as being in need are charged just $5 for the bundles, which Square Roots says would normally cost $20 if sold in a grocery store. Customers who say they can afford to pay more are charged $10, or $1 per pound, the option chosen by 30% of patrons.

In addition, patrons can pay $20 a month for a buy one, give one deal. A three-month arrangement is offered to enhance Square Roots’ cash flow.

Since the program started last year, Square Roots has sold 820 meal tokens, diverted 51,000 pounds of food from the waste stream and provided 3,824 bundles of fruit and vegetables. 

Square Roots was conceived as part of St. Mary’s participation in Enactus, a collaboration of educators, students and business executives that strives to solve social problems by applying the principles of capitalism. College students work with members of their faculty and business mentors to brainstorm enterprises that could help in resolving an issue. The teams then compete with the squads of other colleges to see who hatched the most feasible and effective approach. The ideas turn into actual sustained businesses.

The name is a contraction of “entrepreneurial,” “action” and “us”—student, academic and business leaders. 

Square Roots was revealed to the foodservice community at last week’s Global Restaurant Leadership Conferencein Dubai. The event is presented by Winsight, the parent company of FoodService Director.

Photograph: Shutterstock

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