Whole Story

The Official Whole Foods Market® Blog

Grow Mushrooms and Help Kids

Thanks to Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, co-founders of Back to the Roots, a 100% sustainable urban mushroom farm, for sharing their story. Read on to learn how this Whole Foods Market Local Producer Loan Recipient has launched a Facebook campaign to share the gift of growing with kids across the country.

During our last semester at UC Berkeley we heard an interesting fact in a class: gourmet mushrooms could potentially be grown on 100% recycled coffee grounds. Excited about the waste-to-food model, we started experimenting in a fraternity kitchen, eventually planting ten test buckets of coffee grounds mixed with mushroom spawn (seed). Out of the ten, only one grew — but we saw a huge potential in that one bucket! Not knowing what a good mushroom tasted like vs. a bad one, we walked that paint bucket of mushrooms down to the best restaurant in town — Chez Panisse — whose founder, Alice Waters, happened to be there. Cal, one of the head chefs, tried some of the mushrooms on the spot. We still remember him sautéing the mushrooms and shouting, “Whoa, these are delicious!” That same day, even more excited, we walked that bucket over to our local Whole Foods Market store in Berkeley and talked to the first guy we saw in the produce department, someone packing the vegetables. Before we knew it, we were being passed around the whole store telling a lot of the team members about the sustainable mushrooms we were trying to grow! A few weeks later, we received an email from Randy Ducummon, the regional produce coordinator for Whole Foods Market’s Northern California Region, and he was really supportive about the possibility of a local, sustainable, urban mushroom farm. “If you figure this out, we’ll launch them in stores.”  We’ll never forget those words! A few weeks before graduation, we won a small $5,000 grant from our Chancellor for a social innovation business plan competition. Tasty mushrooms, the support of Whole Foods Market, and $5k in our pockets...that’s all we needed to forego our offers in investment banking and consulting and instead become full-time urban mushroom farmers! Though we started off with fresh mushrooms, we had a lot of our customers and supporters asking us: “Can we take this one step more local and grow these at home?” With that in mind, we launched the Grow-Your-Own Mushroom Garden, which lets anyone grow up to 1½ lbs of gourmet mushrooms in as little as 10 days…right from the little brown box! The soil inside is 100% recycled coffee grounds, and our goal this year is to collect and divert one million lbs of coffee grounds from landfills. Once you’re done with the soil inside, the leftover mushroom roots and coffee ground blend actually turns into a great soil amendment for any other plants at home…closing the loop on your Mushroom Garden. As we’ve launched the kits, first in the Berkeley store and now in Whole Foods Markets nationally, we’ve seen an awesome response from a wide range of people, but especially kids! We quickly learned that the 90 days or so it takes to grow tomatoes is a lifetime for kids, whereas the 10 days with the mushroom kit was something they could really get excited about because it literally grows in front of their eyes. We’ve since partnered with dozens of schools using the mushroom kit as an awesome educational project that ties together science, food and sustainability. We’ve had a lot of people tell us, “Kids don’t like mushrooms,” but what we’ve seen is that kids love watching things grow (especially in just 10 days!) and are then so proud to share that with their family and friends. Our vision with Back to the Roots is to create a movement around everyone growing their own food, and we’re excited to share a really fun campaign we just launched. For every picture someone posts on our Facebook Page of their fully grown mushroom kit, we’ll donate a kit and sustainability curriculum to an elementary classroom of their choice. Share your experience and support kids to get involved in learning where their food comes from. With nearly one in five kids in the US dealing with obesity, we believe educating and empowering kids to eat healthy and learn about the food they put in their body is crucial. We’re proud to partner with Whole Foods Market, who just launched the Whole Kids Foundation®, to build that energy around healthy and sustainable living. So “like” our Facebook page, share your photo and join the movement!