TWO AUSTIN COMPANIES COMPETE FOR FOOD+CITY CHALLENGE PRIZE
BIG WHEELBARROW AND GRUBTUBS WILL VIE FOR A PRIZE DURING THIS YEAR'S SXSW
BY MEGAN KIMBLE | Austin Monthly
Published: February 28, 2018
People don’t pay enough attention to how food gets from one place to another. That’s the premise behind Food+City, an Austin-based nonprofit working to improve how we feed cities. “The food supply chain is really hidden from the consumer,” says Cole Leslie, a communications specialist at Food+City. “It’s hidden in plain sight.”
Food+City was founded in 2012 to support entrepreneurs developing solutions in food transportation, logistics, and storage, with a focus on technology over products. In addition to publishing a biannual magazine, Food+City sponsors a yearly prize to inspire change in food logistics, awarded this month at South by Southwest for the first time. After receiving 90 applications from companies in 14 different countries, Food+City invited 15 finalists to SXSW for the chance to win up to $50,000 in cash and business development services. Two Austin-based companies are finalists, and they’ve been honing their pitches.
Ninety percent of the food we eat in the United States comes from a wholesaler—a food service company or distributor that supplies food, usually grown on a commodity farm, to grocery stores and restaurants. Small farmers across the U.S., unable to access these larger institutional markets and dependent on labor-intensive direct sales, are struggling to stay in business. Meanwhile consumers increasingly want to eat food grown locally.
Enter Big Wheelbarrow, a software company that helps wholesalers work with small farms. “Buyers want local product,” says Sam Eder, Big Wheelbarrow’s co-founder. “They just can’t justify the resources it takes to work with small growers.”
The heart of Big Wheelbarrow is a conversational artificial intelligence–based chat-bot that responds via SMS text messaging—an important feature for farmers working in the field without access to the internet. The bot communicates with farmers to figure out what they’re growing, when it’ll be available, and how much it’s selling for. Buyers can see the real-time availability of local products, and the app automates simultaneous orders to multiple producers, helping with seamless delivery. “Nothing screws up a buyer more than a farmer not being able to deliver what they promised on time,” Eder says. “It happens a lot with small farmers.”
By coordinating within the larger network, Big Wheelbarrow can alleviate the impact on retailers. The company works with more than 40 farms located within 70 miles of Austin, but it will soon bring on wholesalers that work with growers within a 250-mile radius. Eder says that if his company wins the challenge prize at SXSW, it will use the money and support to expand Big Wheelbarrow to San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas. “We know we’re able to move the needle for our farmers,” he says. “Restaurants love what they get, and wholesalers are able to expand their capacity to source locally, because we’re automating the un-fun parts of working with local farms.”
Chickens eat insects. Insects eat food scraps. Food scraps pile up in restaurants. Restaurants, for the most part, pay to have their food waste hauled to the landfill, where it decays and emits greenhouse gases like methane.
In this non-virtuous cycle, Robert Olivier saw an opportunity. He has been working to get food waste out of landfills since 1999, when he was a freshman in college and realized the potential of grubs—black soldier flies, specifically—to gobble bins full of food waste in as little as 24 hours (most composting setups require weeks to break down food).
GrubTubs started in 2017 with two Austin restaurants: Le Politique and G’Raj Mahal. The food-grade “grub tubs”—6.5-gallon buckets—are set up at kitchen stations, handy for cooks busy chopping, peeling, and discarding. The buckets are lined with lactobacillus (the same bacteria found in yogurt). Once food waste is hermetically sealed inside, it begins to ferment, effectively preserving it until it gets to the farm—and to the hungry grubs.
By feeding chickens the harvested insects instead of commercially produced organic soy, poultry producers can cut their feed costs nearly in half—a farmer raising 1,000 birds would save $1,000 a month, according to GrubTubs. “It’s the ability to start thinking about food as its own waste stream,” Olivier says. “Or better yet, as its own resource.”
Half the food waste in Austin’s landfills comes from restaurants and groceries. That’ll change in October, when a city ordinance will ban all businesses with a food permit from sending organic waste to the landfill. The Food+City challenge comes at a good time, as GrubTubs is scaling up. Twenty restaurants were expected to be using GrubTubs by this month, allowing the company to collect more food waste to grow more insects to feed more chickens—to lay more eggs. The ultimate goal, says Olivier, is for farmers to be able to sell those eggs back to the restaurants that feed their chickens, thus completing the now-virtuous cycle.