Mothers of Invention FreshPaper: Keeping it Fresh, From Farm to Fork

02.11.13 5:00 AM ET

Those of us who stockpiled all manner of perishables in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy and then lost power for days know the futility of the exercise. After the lights went out we likely wondered if there were some better way to protect our food supplies long enough to actually use them. Somehow these inconveniences seem slight when compared to the urgency of 1.6 billion people in the developing world living with no refrigeration and the prevailing threat that hunger presents, the world’s number one health risk. As much as an astounding 30% of the world’s food supply is lost to spoilage each year.

Use It or Lose It

Enter an American, modern-day Renaissance girl, Kavita Shukla, who is the brainchild of FreshPaper, a five-inch square sheet infused with edible ingredients can be dropped into a crisper bin, fruit bowl, or anywhere you store produce (no wrapping necessary) to inhibit bacterial and fungal growth as well as the enzymes that cause over-ripening. The result, a way to keep produce fresh for up to four times longer than has so far been possible. With the potential to revolutionize the food industry, it’s also safe, organic, biodegradable, and low-cost.

Massachusetts-based Fenugreen, founded by Shukla and a doctor friend, produces FreshPaper, named after its key ingredient, fenugreek—a spice used in Asia and the Mid-East. It all started when Kavita was a 13-year-old Maryland student visiting family in India. She accidentally gulped a mouthful of questionable tap water while brushing her teeth. Her grandma then mixed a generations-old medicinal brew of herbs and spices for Kavita to drink to ward off any ill side effects. It worked, and she didn’t get sick. But when she returned home to the U.S., the keenly inquisitive Kavita decided to think of other applications for the concoction.  She tried coating paper with the botanical mixture. Placing it alongside a crate of Clementines in the fridge drawer, she learned that the treated inserts only needed to be in the general vicinity of produce to work their magic. By age 17, Kavita was awarded her patent for FreshPaper, reinforcing the hope that she might be capable of inventing simple things that could improve people’s lives.

A Transformative Solution

Upon admission to Harvard, Kavita was anxious to get her invention out into the world. In 2010 Kavita and her co-founder decided to take FreshPaper to Cambridge’s local, community-owned co-op down the block to see what reaction it would elicit. A week later the Harvest Co-op director said he’d offer the product to customers and use it in his co-op’s storage.

By now Kavita, who personally shopped at farmers’ markets and ate an organic diet, thought she understood the food system. But she admits she still had much yet to learn about “the journey that food goes on” from farm to fork. Perhaps most revelatory was the gained knowledge that the world harvest actually produced enough food to feed the entire planet. Yet, one in eight (nearly 13% of the world population or about 870 million people) are either “hungry or chronically undernourished” due to staggeringly high spoilage losses, according to current U.N. statistics.

Spreading the Word

Ever since the enterprise got started, said Kavita, her dream has been to sell FreshPaper in order to give it away to those who most need it, especially in developing countries. To that end, Fenugreen has just launched a “Buy a Pack, Give a Pack” initiative. For every package of FreshPaper purchased, Fenugreen is currently giving a pack of it to Hurricane Sandy-affected local food banks, which have been struggling to keep donated produce fresh since the storm. Next up, school lunch programs in the developing world are poised to benefit from the philanthropic gesture.

How far this simple idea has gone in its relatively short life is likely encouraging aspiring inventors and enterprising young girls and women everywhere. Kavita has gone back and visited middle and high school students, brimming with ideas of their own, as she reinforces the importance of “taking the first step” by sheer example. “My grandmother inspired the invention; she was an inventor in her homeland largely out of necessity,” she said. But two generations later, it is Kavita’s own courage and single-mindedness that propels her “fresh for all” mission closer to a time when potentially millions of pounds of the world’s harvest is more efficiently stored and distributed to those most in need.