Drexel Food Lab Concocts Recipes to Prevent Waste at Local Homeless Shelter, Supermarkets and More

Dana Bloom, an undergraduate culinary arts major in Drexel's Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, tests recipes in the Drexel Food Lab.
Dana Bloom, an undergraduate culinary arts major in Drexel's Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, tests recipes in the Drexel Food Lab.

“How are we going to get people to eat all these peas?”

That was the question on Larry Russock’s mind when he contacted the Drexel Food Lab, a student-run group, created in January 2014 in Drexel University’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, that aims to solve real-world problems through developing recipes and food products.

Russock runs My Brother’s House, a Bethesda Project Safe Haven for chronically homeless men, in South Philadelphia. The Safe Haven, which serves three meals and a snack each day with a monthly food budget of only $600, has no dedicated food service staff, so the residential aide staff is tasked with preparing these meals in addition to monitoring the house and supporting residents.

“One of the problems we struggle with is how to be creative with food that was clearly designed for quantity and not quality,” said Russock. “What often ends up happening, as per the recommendations of ‘heat and serve’ on the side of these 6lbs cans of vegetables, is that we just heat the food up, the residents don’t eat it and then it gets thrown away. We reached out to the Drexel Food Lab to see if they could help us come up with some simple, creative ways to put our seemingly bottomless supply to better use and prevent waste.”

Under the supervision of Alexandra Zeitz, a senior culinary arts major who oversees the Lab, the students went to work in the test kitchen at Drexel’s Paul Peck Problem-Solving and Research Center (33rd and Arch Streets), and came up with a number of quick, healthy, low-cost recipes using the surplus food that could be prepared by workers who don’t have any formal culinary training.

To put to better use the many cans of “Smooth Alaska Peas,” for example, the students developed recipes for an easy pea soup, a fritter, a shepherd’s pie and a variation on the Indian dish, dal. For the many cans of spinach, they created recipes for spinach pie, a pasta dish, saag paneer and a strata that also put to good use the shelter’s supply of stale bread.

One of the Lab volunteers, David Klein, who graduated from Drexel’s culinary arts program in June and is a now a line cook at Vetri restaurant, even went out to My Brother’s House to  help prepare and serve a meal.

The collaboration with My Brother’s House, which began this past winter and has plans continue, is just one example of the work of the Drexel Food Lab. In addition to pro bono work like this, the Lab also conducts projects for the food industry and government, as well as developing products, including such recent creations as sriracha nut bars, cauliflower mayonnaise and an onion-based meal starter.

The Lab is self-supporting through contracts with food industry partners, collaborative grants and gifts stemming from pro bono work and revenue from food products that they develop. Students can get involved with the Lab in a variety of ways, including through a practicum class, as paid student-workers or just as a place to work on projects of interest.

“In many culinary programs, students learn to cook set recipes, but at Drexel they have the opportunity to solve real world problems, collaborate with the industry and learn by doing,” said Jonathan Deutsch, PhD, director of the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, who started and facilitates the lab.

 “Our vision is to provide an unparalleled, rich student experience to develop the next generation of responsible industry leaders, and the Drexel Food Lab is just one way we make that happen.”

Another pro-bono project the Lab is currently working on is the development of recipes and web content for Cook for Your Life!, a national non-profit organization that teaches healthy cooking to people touched by cancer. Deutsch, who is on Cook for Your Life!’s board, offered the Lab’s services to help create healthy recipes for the organization’s website, www.cookforyourlife.org.

Cook for Your Life! provided information to the students about the dietary needs of cancer patients and survivors, but the students also researched the topic on their own. The Lab created nutritious recipes such as an edamame dip, an eggplant lasagna and a chickpea tomato and egg bake, all of which are currently featured on the organization’s website.

They also created a “bland diet series,” which included oatmeal dishes and a tofu and star anise soup, for cancer patients who may be suffering from nausea as a result of chemotherapy or cancer impacting the mouth, throat or gastrointestinal tract.

“The students develop recipes each week and photograph them for the website,” Deutsch said. “They also have recently started creating video clips and gifs of food preparation techniques. Some of our favorite recipes include homemade nutrient dense drinks, healthy ‘dad’ food for Father’s Day, stir-fries and cold soups for summer. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Even the Environmental Protection Agency has taken advantage of the Lab’s pro bono work. The agency sought out the Lab’s help in reducing food waste by developing low-cost, easy, healthy, large-volume recipes for food items – especially produce and baked goods – that are commonly pulled from supermarket shelves and composted, donated – or worse – headed to the landfill.

The Food Lab took the bruised or misshapen fruit, stale bread and other unwanted products and transformed them into cobblers, jams and apple sauce. The EPA wrote about the collaboration on their blog.

In a previous project, the Lab developed 150 healthy school lunch recipes last summer for a non-profit called Fresh Start Foods.

Beyond non-profit partners, the Lab currently is partnering with Race West, a large produce importer and distributor, to develop onion recipes as well as those for other under-used commodities. The Lab has conducted similar projects for products like radishes, sunchokes and sweet potatoes. Some of the recipes have been published in Drexel’s Table Matters food magazine.

The Lab has also tested chicken broth for a European manufacturer, Podravka; conducted sensory analysis and recipe development for a specialty foods retailer, Olive Lucy; and developed recipes for Soom foods’ tahini.

“The Drexel Food Lab is incredibly unique in so many ways,” said Deutsch. “It brings together food science, culinary science and culinary arts students, at the graduate and undergraduate levels, to work together. And, while faculty offer input, students truly lead the work. At a comprehensive a research university like Drexel, the Lab also benefits from expertise in areas ranging from engineering to product design to nutrition that can be incorporated in our culinary innovation.”