Waste Not

GaBiz Editor in Chief chats with Retaaza founder and CEO Kashi Sehgal about the opportunities and challenges of reducing food waste and food insecurity in Georgia.

Finding fresh, wholesome food can be a hardship for consumers in need, and on the flip side, avoiding unnecessary waste can be a challenge for farmers. This intricate set of issues inspired Kashi Sehgal to launch Retaaza in 2020. The name comes from “re,” the English word meaning “again,” and “taaza,” a Hindi word for “fresh.” That idea for “refreshing” the system plays out as Sehgal, who serves as CEO, and her team deploy logistics solutions and key relationships to help ensure farmers get a fair price for their excess product and Georgians in need can access affordable local produce. Here, we learn how Retaaza’s team is rising to meet the challenges and maximizing their impact.  

Can you give us an idea of the scope of the opportunity when it comes to the food supply chain in Georgia (i.e. how many Georgians are food insecure and how much food is wasted here)? 
Agriculture is Georgia’s biggest industry accounting for $75 billion. According to UGA, there are more than 42,000 farms spanning more than 9 million acres throughout the state. [According to the USDA] of the food that is produced by farmers, about 30 percent of that food is not sold. Drawdown Georgia [a research-based initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions] states that it is estimated that over 2 million tons of food is wasted in Georgia every year. Also, 1 in 9 Georgians are hungry including 1 in 8 children. None of this is acceptable! Farmers aren’t selling all of their food, and Georgians are still hungry. We have a misuse of resources here—really, it’s more of a non-use, or discarding, of resources.  

Why did you choose Atlanta to start your business? What are some advantages of doing business here? 
First of all, I am from Atlanta, so of course this is going to be where I choose to run a business. But also, in some ways, Retaaza was born out of Georgia’s wealth of resources. As a company, we support Georgia’s largest industry, agriculture. We grow more types of produce than most other places in the country as well as have producers of proteins and dairy. As a result, Georgia’s agricultural support system is more advanced than most states and has more structured ways to plug into the agricultural ecosystem—both at the statewide level and in urban areas like Atlanta with organizations such as Georgia Grown and AgLanta. This makes it easier to find local farmers to support, and we can spend more of our time on rescuing the produce that they can’t sell, which often ends up in a landfill or is plowed under in their fields.  

The nonprofit community working in hunger in Atlanta is also unparalleled, including having the largest food bank facility in the country. Being able to provide fresh produce to these groups and to amplify the work they are doing on the ground means we can make more impact more quickly to help our hungry neighbors across the state. It allows us to focus on what we do best, which is to serve as a connector of resources around the local food value chain.  

 Have you found the business community here to be supportive? How? 
The startup ecosystem in Atlanta has evolved and grown quite a bit in the last 10 years. There are so many places to turn to now for support and the funding is coming too. There is an energy in Atlanta’s startup community that is exciting. One thing that is so special about Atlanta’s business community as a whole is that people want to be helpful and are willing to share their time with you, coaching you through an issue or connecting you to someone that can accelerate your work. Even more special is that we have found that in the local food space, most organizations want to work collaboratively. We love working in partnership, and it is going to take all of us to bring real change to some of our communities’ biggest issues.  

How is partnering with Retaaza a smart business decision for companies? What about for farmers? 
About 30 percent of food that farmers produce is not sold into the marketplace. It is landfilled, left to rot in fields, used at animal feedlots, donated to food banks, or composted. None of these outcomes, in general, produce more dollars, and therefore increased economic stability, for farmers. If we could find meaningful use for this 30 percent that is produced, it could add roughly and conservatively about $30 billion to the state’s economy. That would benefit farmers and the communities in which they live and also any municipality, including the state, that benefits from tax revenue. We help farmers recover that revenue because we generate local demand and sales for what they are producing, including, but not just, for what they are throwing out.   

One of the ways in which we help businesses is that we can streamline costs of the many programs that they run to create impact. We offer “produce as a perk” through our Corporate Wellness program which allows companies to spend $1 and create impact across three different sets of goals and objectives. One: Businesses are able to provide a meaningful benefit to employees that creates an impact on their health and wellness and drives satisfaction. Two: We assist with achieving sustainability goals through diversion of greenhouse gas and carbon emissions from reducing landfill waste and moving food fewer miles. And three: We donate produce to our hungry, so companies are helping their communities eat. It’s a 3x return on that dollar along with all the other support that we give them. 

What’s on the horizon for Retaaza in terms of growth and expansion? 
Retaaza is poised for growth. In many ways, we have been piloting this hyper-local first supply chain and refreshing how we operate across the local food value chain. Over the last two years we have shown time and again that our model works. We have been able to rescue as few as 10 boxes, or 200 pounds, of tomatoes and as much as a full truck load, which is 35,000 pounds. We are making plans to start offering our services and solutions regionally and should start those operations in Q1 of 2024. Once that happens, national expansion will follow quickly. Our goal is to create nodes of hyper-local supply chains all over the country.