As a grad student at George Washington University, Stephanie Westhelle committed her academic life to studying sustainable development. That’s how she found herself researching and visiting small farms around the area.
“It was disheartening to see how many thousands and thousands of pounds of produce are left behind,” she said. “I think the one that was the most disheartening and really made me move forward with my idea was a small farm in Maryland that had lost about 80,000 pounds of apples due to some bruising that happened because of a hail storm… I came up with the idea to start making apple crisps from [them].”
Westhelle is the co-founder and CEO of Halona Foods, which she founded just a little over a year ago. She works with micro-scale farms (small, typically family-owned farms that usually bring in under $1 million in sales annually) to give new life to produce that would normally be considered waste. She and her team buy the irregularly-shaped, bruised or otherwise hard-to-sell fruits and veggies and turn them into snacks, like zucchini chips or apple crisps.
They try to develop unique flavors, she said. While most apple crisps are plain-flavored or dusted with cinnamon, hers are a more tart variety – Honey Cran Apple Crips – because they soak them in cranberry juice before baking.
Halona, which means “happy fortune” to the Native American Zuni tribe of southwestern United States, felt like a perfect fit to Westhelle, who had dubbed the bounties of normally unused produce “food fortunes.”
“[It’s because there’s nothing wrong with them… They’re still nutritious, still delicious. They just may look different.”
Zucchinis are a perfect example of veggies that may be hard to sell, she said.
Those typically sold in stores are called “fancy zucchinis.” They are the small to medium, perfectly straight ones. But if there’s a big storm or lots of rain, they’ll grow far more quickly, and those, she said, are called “jumbos.” Often, they can be difficult to stack up in a display, or grow in bizarre shapes, so retail stores typically won’t accept them.
The rejected fruits and veggies would normally result in time and money losses for farmers. Best case scenario, they can sell most of it as animal feed, at a fraction of the price they’d get for whole sale. Worst case, the produce is sent to a land fill. In some cases, farmers can till the product back into the land.
Halona Foods will launch their first two products – vegan ranch zucchini chips, made with coconut milk, and carrot chips – July 13, during SeedSpot’s Demo Day. Halona Foods (originally called The Forgotten Fruit) is part of the social entrepreneurship accelerator’s first D.C. cohort.
Westhelle and her co-founder and CFO Larry Gibbons have yet to open investment rounds or generate revenue, she said, but she expects both to happen soon. They’ll be ready to bring in revenue next week when they launch, and she hopes to raise funds in the next year.
The team also has a few partnership talks in the works around D.C., she said. They’re negotiating with local farmer’s markets, and will soon meet with Amazon FreshMarket. Until then they’ll continue to test and develop new products.
But so far, their market research has really validated what she’s doing, she said. They’ll often conduct blind taste tests, letting people choose between her products and those of her competitors.
“It’s really rewarding when over 90 percent of people choose yours.”