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grim jnsq 16

Changing the food system with ugly produce: GRIM

This is Petra Kaukua and Carolin Schiemer, founders of GRIM, a food subscription start-up that fights food waste by creating a market for farmers to sell quality produce that supermarkets won’t buy. 

Of course we think Petra and Carolin are pretty amazing—they want to change the food system, which is totally our thing, too. We recently got a chance to meet them at their office in Copenhagen Nordvest and hear more about GRIM and how their passion for learning and all things food brought them together to create a surplus and “ugly” produce start-up. And this is the part where we say, here is some of that conversation:

Petra: I met Carolin at Copenhagen Business School (CBS), and that’s where the story of GRIM started. We connected right away because we have exactly the same taste in music. We both love Dub Techno, electro, ambient, trance—stuff like that. We even started a music blog together called Sisters with Blisters. 

Carolin: I remember when we first met. I was standing in the corner looking grumpy with my uncool old computer. It wasn’t even an Acer. I kind of wish it was an Acer. Anyway, I felt really uncool and Petra approached me with wide open arms and she was like, ‘Hiiiii.’ I was like ‘Oh my god, she’s so friendly I can’t be grumpy now.’ That was in the first week and from that we started to talk about music and started going out together. I have a hard time connecting with people sometimes and at CBS, people come to school in suits, carrying little briefcases, and when I got there I was just like ‘I don’t fit in here.’ But then Petra and I were drawn to each other right away, and from there we kind of decided to just do everything together.

Petra: Beyond music, we also found that both of us were super ambitious and driven to discover new things through our studies—not just complete a project, but actually get to the root of different questions and problems. We were both really interested in food and focused our school projects on food waste. We were looking into the whole value chain of where food waste happens and talked to a lot of farmers, supermarkets and organizations who were already working on solutions. While talking to farmers, we realized there’s this whole thing about vegetables being ‘too ugly’ to sell, according to industry standards. To tackle that problem, we first came up with an idea of a supermarket for ugly fruits and vegetables and from there, we kind of started to develop our idea for a food box subscription which is now the core of GRIM. We finished the school project, did a presentation, got nice feedback and realized we were on to something.

Carolin: Many solutions for tackling food waste are focused on the end of the value chain, like helping supermarkets get rid of their food waste. We realized that this approach of reinforcing ridiculous produce beauty standards often contributes to the problem, and nobody seems to be helping the farmers—they’re basically left getting screwed over, when they're the ones actually providing all the food for everyone. It’s so unfair. So we decided to start sourcing food directly from the farms, without any middlemen.
 
Petra: By the time we graduated, we were both unemployed and it was a perfect opportunity to just go for it, so just before Christmas 2017, we decided to try it for real—rent a car, find a space. We reached out to around 30 farmers from our network from school, plus a few others, then we just started to pretend we were a business. We made the boxes, created leaflets and made it all really proper. Caro spray-painted the boxes with the logo and my flat mate’s friend made us a cool website, and Caro drove the car while I delivered the boxes. It was super tough to do it all, but we were convinced we had to do it. We had proven that the problem exists, and that our solution works.
 
It starts with the farms sending us lists of how much they have of each type of produce. Based on these lists, we put together a variety box that’s nice to cook with, and we try to balance our suggested recipes with what’s in season. We want to change the whole food system and only use what nature gives us at any particular time. So we get weekly orders from our customers based on the boxes we’ve put together, and then we order what we need from each of the farms. We only deliver in the greater Copenhagen area at the moment. It’s a pretty mixed group of customers, and we’ve also just started testing our delivery to businesses like restaurants and soup kitchens.

"In the EU, 54 million tons of produce is wasted every year before it even leaves the farm. That’s 20-40% of total produce being discarded just because of minor visual imperfections."

Carolin: The whole purpose behind GRIM is to change people’s understanding of what’s quality and what’s edible when it comes to produce. The European Union basically bases produce quality on appearance, which is quite fucked up. The system is focused on efficiency, ensuring that everything’s the same size and color to make it easy to pack and so on. But this way of doing things is outdated; you lose so much. In the EU, 54 million tons of produce is wasted every year before it even leaves the farm. That’s 20-40% of total produce being discarded just because of minor visual imperfections. What you get in the supermarket is what’s called ‘class 1’ or ‘class zero.’ Sometimes they’ll sell class 2 produce, but usually only if there is a shortage of a certain type of fruit or vegetable—and that’s rare. Otherwise, everything that is class 2 is super hard for farmers to sell. Because of this, farmers have to overproduce because they know beforehand that they won’t be able to sell 20-40% of what they grow due to physical imperfections. Money-wise, that amounts to about 168 billion euros of potential revenue that is lost, every single year in Europe alone.
 
Farmers also have the stress of trying to make sure they keep their supermarket contracts from year to year. They’ll often have one or two big customers and if they lose those customers, they may have to close their farm. With GRIM, we want to offer farmers a reliable income and an opportunity to make money on what they otherwise would have to throw away.

Petra: The reaction from farmers has been great. Of course, it varies from farm to farm, but as soon as we start working with someone new, they see the effect pretty instantly. Once we explain how it works and start making orders, the proof is right there. Farmers have now started contacting us, and we’re getting approached by French, Dutch and Italian farmers. They’ll say, ‘Can you buy our things? We have nowhere else to sell them.’ At the moment we work with 26 Danish farms and 17 foreign farms. And we’re growing fast so we’ll definitely have to look for a bigger space soon.

In terms of changing the world, my mind is always on food and what I would like to change is to free up more land from food production. With crises like the Australian bushfires, it’s obvious now that we’re running out of land. We need to act quickly on this and try to be smarter with our resources and use what we have.
 
Carolin: People keep saying that we need to produce much more to feed the world’s growing population, but in reality we just need to eat smarter, consume smarter and start looking outside of how big institutions are telling us we should do things. Break the structures!

Petra: Apart from GRIM and our music blog, I really like insects and arachnids. I have a Tarantula named Carmen and a Vinegaroon called ‘G.’ Vinegaroons are kind of a mix between a scorpion and a spider. I also have a family of stick insects that look like branches. I think they’re mating so I will have a lot more very soon. Caro and I have even published a book chapter about edible insects, called “Marketing insects, solution-food or superfood?“

Carolin: As for me, I get excited about cooking. When we started GRIM, I got super into cooking and now I do it to relax. Whenever I feel I need to chill out, I just go home and lock myself in the kitchen and take my time. It’s so surprising how much great food you can make by just letting it take time. It’s so cool. It’s my happy place now.

 

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