When I was a kid, the future promised all kinds of whiz-bang technologies. Jet boots. Robot maids, like on “The Jetsons.” And, most exciting for a 12-year-old with a subscription to Gourmet magazine, “smart” refrigerators that performed tricks like alerting you to eat that lettuce in the back of the produce drawer before it spoiled and went to waste.
Smart refrigerators finally do exist. (Sadly, I'm still waiting for jet boots.) For about $4,000, I can have a fridge that generates recipes based on what's on the shelves and tells me when I'm out of milk. But no matter how smart the appliance is, it still cannot warn me when those pricey strawberries from the farmers market are about to get moldy or when that bunch of cilantro is about to turn black.
Nor will it be able to assuage my guilt for forgetting about them and wasting food.
Happily, there is a better, low-tech solution to that problem: FreshPaper, which looks like small, square paper towels. They are infused with a mixture of organic spices and botanicals that inhibit bacterial and fungal growth and extend the life of quickly perishable produce. One sheet of maple-scented FreshPaper helped my basket of very ripe strawberries last more than a week in the fridge. A sheet tossed into a plastic bag with cilantro helped the herb last about 10 days.
FreshPaper doesn't blink or beep, but I'm not complaining. Its power is in its simplicity — and its price. Each 5-by-5-inch sheet, manufactured in Massachusetts, costs 50 cents. Sheets can be used and reused over the course of two or three weeks and then composted.
Like many useful inventions, the idea for Fresh- Paper began by happenstance. Kavita Shukla, then a student at Burleigh Manor Middle School in Maryland, was visiting relatives in India and swallowed some water while brushing her teeth. Immediately, she began to worry that she would get sick to her stomach. But her grandmother made her a spice tea from an old family recipe, and Shukla avoided illness. Soon, she began to wonder what else this magic formula could do.
If Shukla, now 27 and living in Cambridge, Mass., were like most of us, the story would end there. But she was a determined teenager with a talent for invention. She received her first patent at 13 for a product called Smart Lid. Inspired by her mother, who regularly forgot to screw on the gas cap on her car, the lid beeped when a container or jar was left open.
In high school, Shukla began to look in earnest for practical applications for her grandmother's special tea. (“As a kid,” Shukla said with a laugh, “I couldn't test for stomach ailments, except on myself.”) She found it one day at the grocery store when her mother asked her to pick out a pint of strawberries. Many of the baskets had berries that were already going bad. Would dipping the berries in her spice mixture help them stay “healthy”?
It did. And it seemed to work for other fruits and vegetables as well. At 17, Shukla was awarded her second patent.
Shukla thought her invention would be best used in developing countries, where many people lack refrigeration and a lot of produce spoils between the farm and the table. While studying at Harvard — where else would a young woman with two patents on her résumé end up? — she considered starting a nonprofit organization to promote the product. But, she said, “I didn't really understand how difficult it would be to distribute something, even if you were giving it away for free.” For several years, she put her plans aside.
Then, in 2010, Shukla decided to market her product closer to home, in the United States. She began to visit farmers markets and street fairs in Boston. As she talked to potential customers, she heard stories of frustration about tomatoes and greens thrown in the trash and families skipping fresh produce for fear that it would go bad before they used it. Food spoilage and waste, Shukla realized, were big problems everywhere.
That's an understatement. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately one-third of food, about 1.3 billion tons, is lost or wasted annually. American and European consumers toss out between 210 to 250 pounds of food per person each year. A study at the University of Arizona at Tucson in 2004 estimated that household food waste in the U.S. alone adds up to $43 billion each year.
And so, a decade after receiving her patent, Shukla founded Fenugreen along with a friend, Swaroop Samant. (The company's name is a play on fenugreek, one of FreshPaper's main ingredients.) Their first customer was Harvest Co-op in Cambridge, which agreed to sell the product after performing its own semiscientific experiment.
Chris Durkin, the director of membership and community relations, bought two baskets of blueberries and left them unrefrigerated. The berries without FreshPaper shriveled within three days and grew moldy by day five. The ones with FreshPaper nestled at the bottom of the basket stayed fresh. “I tend to be a bit of a cynic,” Durkin said. “So I was pretty excited when it worked. This is a low-cost, low-environmental-footprint solution to help fresh food to last longer.”
Fans of FreshPaper have likened it to “dryer sheets for produce,” according to Shukla, as they toss them in the vegetable drawer, a fruit bowl or a cardboard berry box. And they say FreshPaper saves them money. “I have not thrown out a single carton of berries since I started using it,” raved Joan Popolo, a customer in Carlisle, Mass.
It also alleviates the guilt of wasting food. Denis Healy, the director of development for the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, uses FreshPaper regularly to extend the life of mushrooms, broccoli and green beans. “I hate to waste,” he said. “You put all this time in shopping for the best things you can find, and if you don't eat it right away it goes bad.”
Shukla remains determined to make FreshPaper available where it is most sorely needed. To that end, she is working to introduce the product to farmers and distributors who might use it during harvest and shipping (with customized paper sizes). Later this year, Shukla is launching a “buy-one, give-one” program in which, for every package of FreshPaper that is sold, Fenugreen will donate a package to food banks or nonprofits in less-economically developed countries.
“We started Fenugreen as a social enterprise,” she said. “We still believe that in areas where there is no access to refrigeration for farmers and consumers, it can be life-changing.” Smarter than even the smartest technology.