Kavita Shukla was 12 years old when she noticed that spices could do a lot more than flavor food. During a trip to India to visit her grandmother, she accidentally drank the tap water and ended up gulping down a home remedy—a spice-infused tea her grandma concoted—in an effort to not get sick. Much to her amazement, it worked. When she returned home to Maryland, Shukla started experimenting with spices to see what else they could do. Eventually, she noticed that certain combinations seemed to prevent mold growth in produce. More experimenting ensued. "I spent a couple of years in high school as that weird kid, meticulously rotting fruits and vegetables in my garage," Shukla said.
Her mold theory held up. By 17, Shukla had secured a patent for FreshPaper, a little slip of spice-infused paper that, when added to a package of produce, makes its contents last twice as long. Fast-forward another 13 years, and FreshPaper is being sold all over the world, in 35 countries and stores like Whole Foods, Bed, Bath & Beyond, and Ace Hardware, as a way to keep fruits and vegetables fresh longer—and to reduce food waste. "We have this amazing grassroots army," she said. "As a community, I really believe we can make a difference."
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Here, we spoke to Shukla about her years-long journey to get FreshPaper on the shelf and her commitment to raising awareness about food waste.
Tell me a little bit about how you came up with the idea for FreshPaper and how you were able to make the concept a reality.
My journey with food waste started pretty unexpectedly—when I was 12 years old and in middle school. I was visiting my grandmother in India; if you’ve ever traveled abroad, you probably know that it can sometimes be dangerous to drink tap water. That was something that I had been warned of before I went to see my grandma, and then, on my first day there, I drank an entire cup while while brushing my teeth. I started to panic. So my grandmother, who had very little education and very few resources, came to me with this home remedy that was like a spice tea she had made in her kitchen. She said, "If you drink this, you should be just fine." I was skeptical, but I drank it; it worked. I didn't get sick. For me, as a kid, that was the moment that sparked this whole journey. It was almost magical that my grandmother, with what little she had, was able to create something so powerful. After that, I started to learn more about the spices that my grandmother used. A lot of them were things she used in cooking, and she had all kinds of folk remedies for them. I started a little middle school science project where I was trying to use the spices to clean samples of dirty water—I was a kid, so it was very basic [laughs], but I was adding different mixtures of spices to samples of water. Long story short, I started to observe over the years that certain spices were inhibiting mold growth.
Eventually that led to what is now FreshPaper. The idea behind FreshPaper is that it’s a really simple and low-cost way to keep food fresh for longer. Part of the reason it has taken off is because it is so simple and so inexpensive. A lot of that is because when I first started to develop it, I was just a kid without a lot of resources or skills or experience.
So this stray observation you had when you were 12 years old—how much did it shape how you approached your education and career choices?
Ever since I was a kid, I was always creating things and inventing little devices. But when I was young, I actually wanted to be an artist and an inventor. And I remember for such a long time, especially as a little girl, that seemed like such an unrealistic and impossible career. People would tell me, "Oh, that’s cute." And I laugh now, because I'm 30 and I design and create things on a daily basis. I get to be an artist and inventor and a scientist all at once.
So at what point did FreshPaper go from being a science fair project to a professional pursuit?
The patent for FreshPaper was issued when I was 17. I'm a first generation immigrant, and for me that was so far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I was very aware that my grandmother, with all of her brilliance and her incredible ideas, never had the opportunity to pursue them. And at 17, I was able to get a patent and I was going to college. So it was in college that I actually set out to build a nonprofit. I really wanted to get FreshPaper to people in parts of the world where there isn’t access to refrigeration. Over a billion people live without access to refrigeration. My grandmother was one of those people. So that was my goal.
For many years in college, I tried to build a nonprofit—but I hit obstacles at every step. One of the biggest obstacles was that when somebody would tell me that I didn’t have the skills or the experience to do what I was trying to do, I would believe them. As a child, I believed I could do something that could impact an issue as complicated as global hunger, but as I grew older I started to believe that I needed more experience, more degrees, that I was never going to be enough to bring my own ideas to the world. So I actually gave up on it right after I graduated. A lot of my advisers and close friends—people I really trusted, and who I think really were looking out for me—started to tell me that I should probably think about a real career. I got another job. And even though I couldn’t stop thinking about FreshPaper, it was only a couple of years ago, in 2011, when I decided to give it one last chance.
I took some handmade FreshPaper to my local farmers' market. It was in that moment that the whole narrative of my story shifted. All of these people came forward and this incredible grassroots movement started that summer.
What do you think led to that wider interest?
I ask myself that almost every morning [laughs]. We would go to the farmers' market every morning. We were hand-making FreshPaper on Friday nights and then setting up a stall in the morning. At first not a whole lot happened. I was literally standing on the street with my co-founder and we were just handing out sheets to people as they walked by. But as the weeks went on, we started to notice that people were lining up and waiting for us, and all of them wanted to tell us how FreshPaper was helping them eat their CSA shares without any food going to waste. That was the moment I realized not only that food spoilage is a huge problem right in my own backyard, but also that with something as small and as simple as a farmers’ market stall we were able to actually make a shift in our community. A lot of those early supporters took FreshPaper to friends and family members in different parts of the country, or to their local food banks, or to their children’s schools. Within about a year, we were shipping to people across the United States. Within a year and a half, we were shipping to about 35 countries.
Tell me a little bit about your goals going forward and your broader vision—for FreshPaper and beyond.
I have always dreamed of getting FreshPaper into the supply chains, from farm to fork. A lot of food waste happens at home but so much water and energy, human labor, is wasted along the journey. So now we’re actually working with a lot of large-scale farmers to incorporate FreshPaper into their packaging. That’s very exciting for me simply because of the level of impact we’d be able to have. We’re also working on other innovations. I’d like to introduce the technology to do for meat and cheeses, and some bakery items, what we do for produce. And finally, this has become a mission to bring national attention to food waste.
Unlike many of the big challenges we face right now on our planet, food waste is something that literally every single person can do something about. Even being aware of the issue has been shown to reduce food waste. So for us, raising awareness is very important, because that in and of itself makes a difference.