Two Bay-area accidental gardeners not long out of college have emerged as innovative vanguards in the local foods movement. Because when it comes to locally grown foods, you can’t get much more local than your own backyard. Or, kitchen countertop.
Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez – who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 2009 – have made growing gourmet mushrooms as easy as opening a box of mac ’n’ cheese and working to make growing the vegetables mere child’s play.
And all because they were paying attention in class.
A college professor mentioned that it's possible to grow gourmet mushrooms on recycled coffee grounds. “That one fact just clicked,” recalls Arora.
The two experimented in the kitchen of Velez’s fraternity house, ultimately growing one test bucket of tasty oyster mushrooms on recycled coffee grounds. That success – and a $5,000 grant from the UC Berkeley Chancellor for social innovation – started them on the path to becoming full-time urban mushroom farmers.
Their company, Back to the Roots, developed the Grow-Your-Own Mushroom Garden, a box packed with used coffee grounds and mushroom spores. The $19.95 kit – available at Whole Foods, other upscale retailers and online – makes it ridiculously easy to grow up to one-and-a-half pounds of tasty oyster mushrooms. All you need to do is open the box, mist it twice a day with the included mister and wait about 10 days to begin harvesting. No need for an expansive garden — just set the box on the kitchen windowsill.
A writer for the New York Times deemed the mushrooms “savory, tender, with a smooth texture. No coffee taste was detected.”
The business has grown almost as fast. The kits sell in 300 Whole Foods store locations. The kits helped families grow more than 250,000 pounds of mushrooms in 2011. The company recycled about 1 million pounds of coffee grounds last year.
The company now collects more than 40,000 pounds of used coffee grounds from 29 Peets Coffee & Tea stores in the Bay area. And not only is a major component of the kit free, Peets pays Back to the Roots to haul away the waste.
The company now has a staff of 29 and is hiring more, Arora says.
“This whole team was built on what was trash,” he marvels.
The kits are about to get better, Arora adds.
Later this year, seeds for tomatoes, basil, parsley and other produce will be embedded in the kit box. Once all the mushrooms have been harvested, the nutrient-rich mushroom compost can be dumped in the garden and bits of biodegradable box planted for an outdoor garden.
“This is waste-to-value twice over,” Arora says.
The retail price will be the same as the mushroom-only kits.
The intention is to make gardening easy enough for children to do, to give them confidence to grow their own food, Arora says, adding: “it’s something we really believe in.”
Arora says he and his partner want children to get an early start on growing their own food. A program on the company’s Facebook page generates donations of kits to schools. More than 10,000 kids have grown mushrooms through the program.
“We want to make the sustainability buzzword something really tangible,” Arora says.
Get inspired: Learn about others who are making a difference with MNN's Innovation Generation project.