Jessica Pautsch takes on food waste by finding a home for discarded edibles
Jessica Pautsch isn’t slow in going forward. The Vancouver social entrepreneur—who recently launched an online effort to tackle food waste in the city—wheedled her way past security at the Geneva offices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in her early 20s. “I told them it was my lifelong goal to be here, and after talking my way through, I ended up knocking on the director’s door, who said, ‘I like your sass—sit down,’” Pautsch recalls with a smile. That unorthodox introduction led to a year as an assistant editor at UNESCO.
A decade later, Pautsch is just as gung-ho about pushing down barriers. Tucking into steelhead trout—and cleaning the plate, naturally—at Olympic Village’s Flying Pig restaurant, she rattles off the statistics that sparked the FoodMesh portal, part of Mesh Exchange Inc. The site, which connects more than 140 vetted businesses as well as charities over discounted or donated surplus food (“Think of it as Tinder for the food-waste world,” the co-founder and CEO says), is prompted by the fact that “almost 40 percent of food that’s grown is never eaten.”
Even then, she continues, half of that is discarded before it reaches consumers because of supply chain inefficiences such as imperfect produce or overstock. “It’s insane,” says Pautsch, who spoke on the sharing economy at TEDxStanleyPark in 2016.
Also fuelled, she adds, shaking her head in disbelief, by research showing that it’s “10 times more expensive to redistribute food than it is to throw it in the landfill,” Pautsch and her Gastown-based team of six seek out “champions” in companies that will buy into the enterprise’s social aspect and make a match with another group wanting or offering food. “You have to make the case that it does actually create a more balanced bottom line,” the 35-year-old resident of a Cambie co-op avers.
Although only officially launched last fall, FoodMesh “rescued” about $1 million worth of food headed for the landfill in its beta period of the previous 12 months, she says. That includes consumable but not saleable granola bars labelled organic but rejected after the manufacturer accidentally used non-organic sugars.
Obeying her “no margin, no mission” mantra—Pautsch previously worked as a social venture strategist for five years and spent a year as a sustainable business developer with SITA (Social Impact Technology Accelerator) in Vancouver—FoodMesh takes a 5- to 15-percent cut of most deals. “Social enterprise has the heart of a non-profit but the mind of business, and that’s the superior business model,” opines the Ontario transplant.
Pautsch’s time at UNESCO (“a very bureaucratic machine and not me. I’m more grassroots, more agile”) was sandwiched between her degree in international development at Saint Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia and a master in political science at UBC. From 2007 to 2013, she also set up Eco Trek Tours Society, a social enterprise where she connected people to adventures in B.C.’s great outdoors. (Pautsch is a devoted kayaker, skier and hiker.) That venture coincided with a two-year stint as a development manager with West Vancouver real estate firm Hynes Developments Inc.
If FoodMesh continues to take off in B.C., its founder hopes the model will go global. (She’s already been approached for a software licence by other countries, including Dubai and Taiwan.) “It’s highly repeatable and scalable,” says Pautsch, whose husband, Ben, imports and exports craft beer. “I’m not a specialist in supply chain logistics or software,” she admits. “But when I couldn’t shake the image of some of the scale of waste from my mind, I felt I had to jump in to solve the problem.”
THREE THINGS ABOUT… Jessica Pautsch1. Pautsch grew up in Muskoka, Ontario, the youngest of seven children raised by a single mother. “She instilled a lot into us about being resourceful, figuring things out yourself and being independent.”
3. Pautsch loves travel, and after a trip to Kenya in 2007, she became vice-chair of KASOW (Kanyawegi Support for Orphans and Widows), a Canadian charity that encourages entrepreneurship and helps in areas such as health. It’s the “real-life application” of her formal studies, she explains.