How a California Entrepreneur Is Profoundly Fixing Food Waste
Thirty to forty percent of perfectly good, fresh produce grown in the U.S. goes to waste each year simply due to bruising or ripening that most markets deem unacceptable for sale. That astounding figure has only increased during the pandemic, as widespread closures of restaurants, schools, and businesses have led farmers to dump their surpluses of eggs, milk, and potatoes—all this as needy families line up in growing numbers at food banks across the country. Tabitha Stroup, a former chef and restaurant veteran of nearly 20 years, tells us how she’s working to help close the loop and boost local independent farms in California’s Pajaro Valley with Terroir in a Jar, a company with a serious mission to reduce food waste and put profits back into the hands of growers.
You’ve worn many hats in the food industry. Can you tell us a bit about your journey?
I’ll just give you the Reader’s Digest version. I started cooking in 1991, in Santa Cruz, went to Cordon Bleu in the mid-nineties and through that, helped open up a couple restaurants. I got bored with that and got into the wine world, got my Level 1 sommelier certification, and became the caterer to the wineries of our AVA (American Viticultural Area) in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and specialized in it. Within that time frame, I got my Level 1 cheese mongering certification and was teaching at the Cheese School of San Francisco as well, because I needed something new to keep me going.
I was realizing that there were no products out there in the market that represented our community, let alone anyone else’s community, to go out and be a pairing ambassador for the region. In 2011, I started Friend in Cheeses Jam Co., which is a national brand now, utilizing all that we grow here on the Central Coast—we create products that I call “jars of possibilities.” When you open up a jar, it can go twelve different directions, and you’re only limited by your own imagination.
What led you to then start Terroir in a Jar?
Last year, my former business partner and I were thinking, Okay, farmers are the lowest common denominator of our food chain, right? They get the lowest amount of money, the least amount of respect, take on the most physical abuse in a job, and [receive] usually the least return, compared to the mass agricultural index—I’m talking about the small, local, family-run, organic farmer. They’ll bring me, Friend in Cheeses Jam Co., their unsellable produce to make into preserves. Let’s say they have one hundred pounds of strawberries to offload, and I’ll buy those for either fifty cents to a dollar a pound. So the end of their financial journey, with that one hundred pounds, ends with me at fifty to a hundred bucks. Well, hmm, that’s fucked. So I thought, Could I take that same hundred pounds and make more money for me and the farmer? How could I do that?
The economics of farming seem pretty backwards—especially given the time it takes to grow something, and the necessity of what they grow.
I started contacting my farm partners and just posed it to them: What if you just give me that one hundred pounds, I make it into shelf-stable products that are legal to sell to the public, and sell back to you to distribute wholesale? This way, the farmer has the ability for a complete recoup. So with that same one hundred pounds of strawberries I would have bought to make Friend in Cheeses jam, I instead take that and make preserves, jams, jellies, hot sauce, or whatever suits the produce they’re selling, and sell it back to them. All of a sudden, their profitability on that “unsellable” produce has jumped three thousand percent with a product that has a three-year shelf life.
Unlike other private labels that do this sort of thing, we’re also a full-service product for the farmer: I have a marketing person and graphic designers that will help get their labels together with all the legal federal requirements and die-cuts for the labels, and meet with local markets and grocery stores to find an outlet. They can also include them in their C.S.A. boxes, at farmer’s markets, and, during the off months, still have some offerings in their C.S.A. pantry. We’re a certified green kitchen, as well, which is part of the bonus of working with us: For all of our food waste, we have farm partners that we text when the buckets are full. They pick them up, feed livestock with it, or throw it into their compost to grow more food.
What’s the end goal for Terroir in a Jar?
That the majority of small agricultural regions in this country have an outlet to not only monetize from waste, but to be able to diversify offerings to their community, be able to raise profits, and become stronger farms. And then, to have a national training program for disadvantaged human beings that have taken a trip or stumbled in life, and get them back into the world with beautiful food, teaching them about paying it forward and all that good stuff. And, of course, to get the amount of food waste down. I mean, it’s just ridiculous.
What changes would you like to see in our food and agricultural systems at large?
First and foremost, legislation. We are losing such a grip with our current administration. For example, the USDA, which monitors our meatpacking plants and livestock farming. Just a few weeks ago, the President signed [a declaration] that all laws and good manufacturing practices instilled in USDA packing plants are no longer laws but suggestions. Nobody’s going to follow a suggestion, especially if the suggestion costs more. Profits are already so hard to come by in the food industry and, unfortunately, so many Americans are conditioned to want to pay less for food than they would a pair of kicks, a fresh set of nails, or a haircut: It’s a Happy Meal mentality.
Fresh, responsibly grown fruits and vegetables may be more expensive, but it’s an investment that goes into yourself, your body. We have this skewed reality of how we should be fed, who should feed us, and what its value is. We’re flipped on our backs, because everyone wants to go grocery shopping at the big boxes during this pandemic, but here in California, the farmer’s markets are open. [I’d rather be] in an open-air market, keeping my dollars in my backyard, which in turn makes my local schools, roads, and communities better.