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Supplier Stories: How Back to the Roots Upcycles Food Waste into Organic Food (Select Stores Only)

Photo Credit: Jay Mantri

Why did two college finance students trade in their suits and ties for a bucket of mushrooms? Put simply, because Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez knew that growing sustainable food means getting your hands a little dirty.

And in time, that paid off: Here’s how a batch of ’shrooms became Back to the Roots, a slow-food business that grew from self-contained gardening kits to one that now feeds over a million New York City kids the first organic cereal available in American public schools.

Frat House Harvesting 101                           

Though they had plans to work in investment banking after graduating from UC Berkeley, Nikhil and Alejandro found themselves on a different path after learning a surprising fact in a business ethics class: Gourmet mushrooms can grow on used coffee grounds.

Any savvy finance student knows that turning garbage into something delicious makes great business sense. And so, it was only a matter of time before they had converted Alejandro’s fraternity kitchen into a makeshift mushroom farm.

From a Bucket to a Business

After growing one “crop” of mushrooms, the newly-minted urban farmers were excited to walk their bucket over to several shops. “We got laughed at again and again,” Nikhil said.

That is, until they found kindred spirits in the produce department of Whole Foods Market in Berkeley, Calif.

“They believed in us,” they said. “They believed in a crazy idea that two kids running off nothing but passion and optimism could upcycle local waste to grow organic food in the community. And they inspired us to give it a shot.”

It was the motivation they needed, and off they went.

“Fast forward about six months (it took us a while to figure out how to take that one bucket and scale it up to sell) and the Berkeley store bought our very first batch of mushrooms and sold them in the produce section,” Nikhil said. “We still have the invoice for 3.14 pounds of organic oyster mushrooms. That one order was the start to our entire business.”                                      

Getting Kids On Board the Growing Game

After getting their start selling oyster mushrooms, the duo launched their next product line thanks to financial support from the Whole Foods Market Local Producer Loan Program: self-contained DIY gardening kits that came with an accompanying curriculum for school kids, all to get them engaged in the growing game.

“We fell in love with the adventure of growing our own food and discovering where it came from,” Nikhil said. “And as we grew Back to the Roots, we really hoped we could reach the new generation with this passion as well. We hope our indoor gardening kits can spark that curiosity in kids to ask where their food comes from, and to begin being conscious of the ingredients on nutrition labels.”

With the gardening kits, families and classrooms can grow organic pearl oyster mushrooms in a box, but other things too: basil, cilantro, sage and dill in a can; basil, cilantro and mint in a jar; or microgreens in a special fish tank. 

Okay, But What Do Mushrooms Have to Do With Cereal?

In time, Back to the Roots expanded from an Oakland-based urban mushroom farm to one with a broader mission of reconnecting everyone (kiddos included) back to their food, beyond mushrooms and growing kits alone. Whether someone grows their own food or buys it from a store shelf, the Back to the Roots founders wanted folks to know about their food’s genesis.

And what better way to do that than with breakfast?

The result — a line of stoneground, single-origin sourced breakfast cereals with four ingredients or less — appeared in Whole Foods Market stores around the country, but they didn’t stop there. Organic Stoneground Flakes are the first organic cereal available in US public schools. After all, starting kids off with a healthful breakfast is the best way to grow conscientious grownups, too.

Back to the Roots are available in select stores across the country. Just call your store to see if you can find them near you!