Renewal Mill

Where okara food waste becomes a nutritious baking flour

By Colleen Riordan

“Reducing food waste can be delicious and good for you. We want it to become something consumers don’t even have to think about,” says Claire Schlemme, cofounder of Oakland-based Renewal Mill.

National interest in the topic of food waste has been growing since 2012, when a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council revealed that 40% of food produced in the United States goes uneaten.

“For me, it’s just staggering to see the disconnect. Compare that with the fact that about one in eight Americans is considered food insecure,” says Schlemme. “If we have a more efficient food system, we can actually make sure that people are getting the nutrition they need.”

Inspired to find efficient and affordable ways to improve our nutrition and reduce food waste, Claire Schlemme and Sumit Kadakia cofounded Renewal Mill. This sustainable food start-up turns okara, the soy pulp cast off in the process of making tofu and soy milk, into a nutrient-packed baking flour that is high in fiber and naturally gluten-free. Traditionally in Japan, China, and Korea, when soybeans are prepared in home kitchens, every part of the bean is used. However, in large-scale food production, the okara is often discarded as waste.

“Our food system is so industrialized and focused on creating a single product. You become very good at that one item, but it means that you don’t have the ability to think holistically about the whole food,” says Schlemme, explaining how large facilities, where much of today’s food is processed, are not incentivized to develop creative solutions to food waste problems.

Okara is a wet, fluffy, crumbly mixture. One of the difficulties in processing a moist, fibrous byproduct like this one is the need to stabilize it quickly to prevent putrefaction. To address this challenge, Renewal Mill created a symbiotic relationship with Hodo Soy, a producer of tofu-based artisan foods located in West Oakland, moving into Hodo’s facility to become part of the production line. As Hodo purées soybeans for their products, the pulp (okara byproduct) is moved directly from their production line to Renewal Mill’s equipment, where it is dried to become shelf stable and then milled into a fine, gluten-free flour.

Schlemme describes her partnership with Hodo Soy as one that’s rooted in social entrepreneurship. “We’re interested in the intersection of food and sustainability,” she says. “Food is an important lever in the health of the ecosystems on our planet.”

Okara flour imparts a subtly nutty, milky flavor to baked goods. It is typically used in combination with other flours, adding fiber, protein, and nutrients without causing a great alteration in taste or texture. Currently, Schlemme and Kadakia sell their okara flour and high-fiber chocolate chip cookies on their Renewal Mill website, at small markets throughout the East Bay, and through Pacific Gourmet’s distribution system. Schlemme says the product line will expand in 2018 to include waffle mix and pasta. In the future, they will expand to other fibrous byproducts including olive pomace, grape pomace, and almond meal.

“Our aim is to illustrate that sustainable eating is economically viable, and in doing so encourage a culture of food manufacturing that wastes nothing,” says Schlemme. “We do this in a delicious way so that the consumer simply experiences a tasty product they love, but with their dollars, they’re fueling this greener, healthier way to make food.” ♦

Frosted Yum-Yums

This Schlemme family recipe offers a tasty way to try baking with okara flour.

1 tablespoon ground flax
1 cup vegan butter (like Earth Balance)
1 cup lightly packed brown sugar
½ cup okara flour
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 bag of chocolate chips
1 cup of chopped walnuts (or other nut of choice)

Preheat oven to 350°. Mix the ground flax with 3 tablespoons water and set aside.

Beat together the butter and brown sugar for 3 minutes. Scrape sides of the bowl and beat for another minute. Add the flax mixture and beat to combine.

In a separate bowl, whisk together okara flour and all-purpose flour. Add to the sugar/butter mixture and beat until dough forms.
Turn dough onto a baking sheet, press out to ¼-inch thick, and bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes or until lightly golden on top.

Immediately after removing from oven, spread chocolate chips on top of the cookie and let melt for a minute. Spread melted chocolate over cookie with spatula, then sprinkle nuts on top and let cool. Cut into 2-inch squares or other shape of choice.

Colleen Riordan is an Oakland-based writer whose work focuses on the innovators behind sustainable solutions to our food and agriculture challenges. cmriordan.com