Ask a gardener what to grow to get the biggest bang for your gardening buck, and you’ll probably be told to grow herbs. They cost very little to grow but can be expensive at the store. The $2.99 bunch of oregano that’s bought for two teaspoons of the fresh herb needed in a recipe will often go bad before you need to use it again.

Kavita Shukla, inventor of Fenugreen FreshPaper, has created a way to keep that oregano, as well as many other fruits and vegetables, fresh two to four times longer with a totally organic product.

Strawberries sit on Fenugreen FreshPaperFreshPaper is a 5 x 5 inch sheet of paper infused with organic spices. When the paper is near fresh fruits and vegetables, it inhibits bacterial and fungal growth, preserving produce and limiting food waste.

What led the young entrepreneur to develop FreshPaper? In middle school, Shukla went to visit her grandmother in India and accidentally broke the “don’t drink the tap water” rule while brushing her teeth. Her grandmother mixed up a concoction of herbs and spices for her to drink, and she didn’t get sick.

“I was curious about how and why this magical home remedy might have worked,” says Shukla. Through her high school years, she worked on figuring it out. She had noticed at the grocery store that it was difficult to find a carton of strawberries that didn’t have a few berries on the bottom without fungus, so she used strawberries in her experiments.

By dipping strawberries in different mixtures of spices, she found which combinations inhibited the growth of bacteria and fungus best. These experiments led her to invent Fenugreek FreshPaper, which she patented when she was 17 and still in high school. The company’s name comes from fenugreek, an ingredient in FreshPaper that’s also used in many Indian dishes.

As an optimistic teenager, Shukla’s original plans weren’t for FreshPaper to keep the oregano fresh in the refrigerators of mainstream Americans. She had seen the hunger in India, and she originally created FreshPaper for the developing world so that food would last longer and feed more people. At 17, however, she didn’t know how to go about taking her invention and getting it into the hands of the people who needed it.

“I found out how hard it is to give something away for free, and I basically gave up and started to think it had no applications,” says Shukla.

Eventually after college, Shukla revisited her invention. In 2010, she and her partner started taking handmade FreshPaper to farmers markets, and it caught on. It’s now being manufactured in the United States and sold in stores across the country. The company is committed to keeping its operations in the U.S. The money from the sales will enable Shukla to do what she originally wanted to do — give FreshPaper away to those who will benefit most from it.

Fenugreen started the Buy a Pack, Give a Pack program last year. For each pack of FreshPaper purchased between Thanksgiving and the end of January, another pack was given away to food banks to help keep fresh produce from spoiling during distributed to those affected by Hurricane Sandy. Shukla sees this as an opportunity to help with the relief efforts in a specific, useful way.

There are still thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Sandy who are relying on local food banks to help them get through. In March, Shukla will be traveling to the Community Food Bank of New Jersey to educate the workers and those in need about how to get the most benefit from FreshPaper.

Shukla during a TEDx talk

Kavita Shukla during a TEDx talk about her Fenugreen FreshPaper.

Eventually, Shukla would like those benefits to reach the developing world. Fenugreen has a mission of “Fresh for All.” There’s enough food to feed everyone in the world, but 1.6 billion people have no access to refrigeration. About 25 percent of the food grown globally is lost to spoilage. FreshPaper can be used from the farm though the entire life of the food until it is eaten, extending the freshness of produce with no refrigeration necessary.

In order to achieve this, one of Shukla’s next goals is to create awareness about food waste. She hopes to contribute to a national conversation about the huge amount of food that is wasted through spoilage. She also envisions FreshPaper being used in school lunch programs in the developing world so that all children have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Fenugreen is a grassroots company with no funding and no marketing budget. Yet, because the product works, word is spreading about the impact a simple piece of paper infused with organic spices can have in both consumer’s kitchens and food supply chains across the world.

Things are happening quickly with the growth of FreshPaper, and the company keeps an up-to-date Facebook page and Twitter stream with announcements and news. You can also hear Kavita Shukla tell her story in her own words in this Toyota Mothers of Invention video below.

Read about other innovators and ideas at The Leaderboard. If you have a story suggestion for this year-long project, please contact us.

Related posts on MNN: